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LEBANON — It took a few warmup shots to find her range, but when South Albany RedHawks basketball player Julia Kruse got hot, she couldn’t be stopped, dropping in several buckets in a row Thursday night at the Lebanon High School gym.

And to celebrate, she showed off some pretty fine dance licks after each bucket, to the raucous applause of an appreciative crowd.

Julia is a member of the school’s unified team, which includes Special Olympics athletes and their classmates. Thursday’s game pitted the RedHawks against the Lebanon Warriors and although the scoreboard favored the home team at the final buzzer, there were dozens of winners all around.

Basketball is just one of several sports offered by the mid-valley Special Olympics programs in both Linn and Benton counties. Organizers want the public to know that although the Oregon Special Olympics program has faced major economic challenges in recent years, the ship is being righted and local programs are running at a fever pace.

Melissa Holcomb of Albany is the coordinator for the Linn County Special Olympics program, which serves people with intellectual disabilities, and has been a program supporter for decades.

“My mother Vickie Cox, helped put the first Special Olympics float in the Veteran’s Day parade in 1986,” Holcomb said. “My brother Ricky and sister Rebecca were involved in Special Olympics.”

Holcomb’s adopted son, Jonathon, is a member of the Lebanon team and was having a great time on the court Thursday. He also competes in swimming and softball.

“He loves it,” Holcomb said. “He’s very excited about the programs.”

“It’s my best sport,” Jonathon said. “I just try to keep passing the ball and getting rebounds.”

Holcomb took on her leadership role in September and said rebuilding the statewide program is important because the athletes not only enjoy the sports competitions, they also build friendships with other athletes locally and statewide.

Holcomb said it costs $89 per athlete per sport and there is no charge to the athletes, so fundraising is vital to the program.

“Transportation and housing costs are the two top expenses when our teams travel,” she said.

Holcomb said the general public may have two key misconceptions about the Special Olympics program in Oregon.

“They think that the program ended, but we’ve come a long way in terms of cleaning up the books at the state level," she said.

The second misconception?

People "think Special Olympics is just for older athletes. We provide opportunities for kids as young as eight years old,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb said Special Olympics’ goal is inclusion for all of its athletes in school and in their communities.

Linn County teams are composed primarily of athletes from Lebanon and Albany, but some also come from Sweet Home, Harrisburg and Scio, and the programs are open countywide.

Holcomb is joined on the all-volunteer management team by: Veronica Copple, co-leader; Ian Copple, sports manager; Vic Holcomb and Lyle Jerabek, equipment managers; Suzy Jerabek, medical manager; Denise Barron, volunteers manager; Cynthia Danford, fundraising manager; Nancy George, communications manager; Vicky Cox, financial manager.

The Copples became Special Olympics volunteers because their son Paul, 18, has autism.

“We have 150 athletes who take part in three seasons of activities,” Copple said. “They range in age from 8 to their 70s.”

CJ Billings, 23, lives in Lebanon and took part in the USA Games last summer in Seattle.

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He won two gold medals, one silver medal and a bronze team medal.

“Everyone gets to know each other,” Billings said. “We get to make connections and meet new people.”

Billings, who works at Sunshine Industries in Sweet Home, said his favorite sport is softball.

Copple said spring and summer sports are softball, bocce, track and field, and golf.

Basketball is the winter sport and fall sports are swimming, volleyball, bowling and soccer.

“We got involved because we want to make a difference,” Copple said. “Our first year, the athletes practiced for eight weeks and got to play in one regional game. It didn’t seem right that they had all that practice and only played one game.”

Peter Mathios teaches special education at Lebanon High School and said coaching the team has “been a fantastic experience.”

“I work with many of these students in PE classes and wanted them to have an opportunity to have a great time through sports,” he said.

Noah Dotson, 19, said he likes playing basketball, but he really enjoys being the Warriors football team’s equipment manager and Daniel Edelman, 18, said winning is all about which team has the best strategy.

“You have to set your focus on winning,” Daniel said.

Softball is his favorite sport; he plays right field and catches.

To learn more about Linn County Special Olympics, contact Holcomb at 541-971-5740.

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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