Team Washington called upon Burlington-Edison's high school volleyball team to prepare for the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. The high-schoolers didn't hold back, and Team Washington was better for it.
Bruises were the first sign.
Nicholas Hollands returned home from a volleyball practice in December, looked at the welts all over his arms and had an epiphany. He could win a championship at the Special Olympics USA Games.
“Once the Burlington girls and guys started helping us, we were a different team,” said Hollands, referring to the Burlington-Edison High School volleyball team.
The high school girls won the Class 2A state championship in November, and longtime Special Olympics coach Randy Geoghegan asked Burlington-Edison coach Tawnya Brewer if her players could help his traditional men’s team. Geoghegan and assistant Tim Holloran had worked with the group for a year but admitted to not knowing the technical aspects of the sport to truly help the athletes succeed.
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Burlington-Edison wasted no time breaking down the basics.
“The first practice, they were jump-serving and hitting us and we were just like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’” recalled the 22-year-old Hollands, who is autistic. “Before, our mission was just hit it over the net. They taught us how to set and pass, and we got better and better.”
Playing for Team Washington at the USA Games in Seattle this week, Hollands and teammates dropped only one set within the total eight matches. It defeated Team Michigan 25-20, 25-20 on Friday at the University of Washington’s Intramural Activities facility for the gold medal.
Mixed in the crowd were three Burlington-Edison players and two male classmates who were among the 15 students who spent the past seven months working with Team Washington.
“There was no mercy,” said graduated senior Allyson Ray of the weekly practices and scrimmages.
The biggest transformation was likely Andy Hall, the only woman on Team Washington’s volleyball roster. She couldn’t get the ball over the net when the team was formed in 2016.
Ray was among the players to give Hall, 38, personal attention to work on hitting. Hall ended up serving for match point on Thursday to advance Team Washington to the title game.
“It took a long time (to learn),” Hall said. “I was just kind of nervous. The guys and girls really helped me, telling me to just believe in myself. (Winning) is amazing. If someone told me this was going to happen, I wouldn’t believe them.”
Uniting the teams helped boost interest in volleyball in a community that already backed Burlington-Edison, which has won four state titles in the past seven years. In April, Geoghegan helped organize a charity game with the teams where an approximate 400 people attended and raised thousands of dollars for the Special Olympics.
“Usually volleyball is not that popular at high schools, but it’s super popular (in Burlington),” Ray said. “We had the biggest fan-crowd at state. It was ginormous. It’s really incredible how our community comes together for volleyball. Our coaches really built up the program in the last 24 years. It’s the success and energy around it.”
Geoghegan hopes to continue to do the same for his athletes. The USA Games in Seattle is a first for Team Washington because of the popularity for bowling in the state. It was announced in 2016 that volleyball would return, motivating Goeghegan to organize his team.
“It’s been a two-year journey with lots of work,” he said. “The girls basically ran the practices, and I carried the equipment. … We wanted to be sure they learned something and actually knew what they were doing. There were times when guys would get angry or mad, but nobody wanted to quit. It was perfect.”