Beginner’s luck? No way: Bi-County Bulldogs headed to Illinois Special Olympics state basketball tournament

Members of the Bi-County Bulldogs are (back row, from left) Collin Mealing, Damian Hughes, Havannah Lee, J'Marion Hill, Kaleb Schipper; (middle row, from left) Angelo Heald, Samantha Zimmermann, Emily Hoffman, Samantha Merriman; and (front, holding trophy) 
Brenden Hoagland.

The Bulldogs are barking, and making a lot of noise.

The Bi-County Bulldogs, a first-year basketball team playing under the auspices of the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, are undefeated and headed to the Illinois Special Olympics state basketball tournament March 8-10 in Bloomington-Normal.

Mandi Roggy, a special education paraprofessional at Morrison High School, is the Bulldogs’ coach.

“I’m definitely shocked by how well we’ve done as a new team,” she said. “There have been lots of tears of joy shed this season. After we won our first game and were waiting to play our second game, I put my head down and cried because I was so happy.

“Our players love the game, are very coachable, and they play well together. They have different skill levels and a wide age range, but you can’t tell. They’re all very excited about playing in the state tournament.”

There are nine players on the Bulldogs team, males and females, from seven school districts. They range in age from 13 to 26.

Angelo Heald, J’Marion Hill and Collin Mealing are from Sterling. Brenden Hoagland is from East Coloma-Nelson, Emily Hoffman is from Morrison, Havannah Lee is from Rock Falls and Samantha Zimmermann is from Eastland.

Two Bulldogs players are former students. Samantha Merriman is from Grand Detour and Kaleb Schipper is from River Bend.

Mealing is the team’s leading scorer. Schipper is the top rebounder and Heald is the best 3-point shooter.

After winning seven regular-season games – six by double-figures – the Bulldogs went into a Special Olympics regional tournament Jan. 28 at Byron High School and dominated again.

They earned a spot in the state tournament by knocking off NASR Pirates White 50-22 and the Rockford Blues 48-16 at the regional.

The Bulldogs will compete in a four-team senior division at the state tournament. They’ll play March 9 and 10 at Horton Field House on the campus of Illinois State University and the Shirk Center at Illinois Wesleyan University.

There will be more than basketball for the Bulldogs to enjoy during the weekend. They’ll also will participate in the opening ceremony March 8 at Horton Field House that will feature a reciting of the athlete’s oath, a torch run with law enforcement personnel and the lighting of a cauldron. Dances with laser tag and bags will be March 8 and 9 at Horton Field House.

To add to the scheduled events, Bulldogs players and coaches will have opportunities to bond further while traveling together and staying in the same hotel.

Roggy has been coaching Bi-County athletes in basketball skills, track and bowling for eight years. She said she formed the basketball team so she could provide new experiences for Bi-County athletes. There were no tryouts for the team. Everyone who wanted to play is playing.

Roggy recruited her fiance, Jess Hurley, to be an assistant coach for the basketball team. Her daughter Emily, 16, a junior cheerleader at Morrison High School, also is an assistant coach. Other assistant coaches are Kristen Hoagland, Teri Holldorf and Kolten Sage.

“It’s amazing our team made it to the state tournament,” Hurley said. “Even if we don’t win a game there, it will be a great experience for the athletes and bring them closer together.”

Six Bi-County athletes will be in the individual basketball skills competition at the state tournament. That competition will be held March 9 at Metcalf Elementary School, a short walk from Horton Field House. Andrew Bertolozzi, Yadira Gomez and Aedyn Reyes from Sterling, Marshall Armstrong from Morrison, Stephanie Howard from River Bend and Bradley Stuart from Rock Falls will compete in the dribbling, passing and shooting skills competition.

Those athletes were chosen in a lottery among the 15 Bi-County athletes who signed up to compete in basketball skills because weather canceled the state tournament qualifying competition.

The Bi-County Special Education Cooperative was formed in 1969. It provides special-education services to 11 member school districts. Regional offices of education in Sterling and Freeport also are members.