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Hoop Dreams - Area Special Needs Students Enjoy Day With Basketball Bruins
Six-foot, three-inch Armando Manriquez towered above the heads of special needs students Zack Jones and Horacio Gutierrez, but all three were sporting the same beaming grin as they dribbled down the court inside Ray Fauria Memorial Gymnasium.

Manriquez and the rest of Riverbank High's varsity boys basketball team spent a few hours with developmentally disabled students of the Connections Family Center during an inspirational practice at RHS on Dec. 5.

The children dribbled, shot baskets, worked on their passes and spent the afternoon enjoying the company of athletes and coaches who truly mirrored their enthusiasm.

"We were really impressed with the basketball team helping the kids through socialization," one the student's mothers, Monique Taormina said. "It really builds their self-esteem."

The players walked students through various drills and led instruction of basketball fundamentals under the direction of adaptive physical education teacher Derrick Burnett and RHS coaches.

The day of hoops was made possible by the motivation of RHS student Delia Paredez, who organized the practice with the basketball program and the Connections Family Center, then took a hands on approach by assisting the children throughout the day.

"Delia approached me about doing it as part of her senior project and I thought that it would be a great idea," RHS coach Jeff Jennings said. "I was extremely happy with how it went.

"It just showed me what great (RHS athletes) that we have here. They really made a connection with the kids and I think the biggest lesson we learned was that these kids were no different than anyone else."

Most of the children were surprisingly adept at the grasping of basketball skills, and all made an impression on Jennings and his staff with exuberant participation in every exercise. By the end of the day it was clear - nothing was holding these students back.

"One of the kids was blind but yet just by the sound of a stick being tapped on the rim he could shoot," Jennings said. "He made four baskets just from judging where the rim was by sound.

"Obviously these kids have some disabilities but that didn't stop them from trying something new and they had such an enthusiasm for the sport."

And Jennings said the special needs students weren't the only ones learning from the practice.

"To see them overcome their various obstacles was very inspiring to all of us," Jennings said. "My guys were amazed at what these kids were doing. They might have some disabilities but they just want to be part of a team, have fun and play hoops."

Burnett was a thrill to watch in action. The RHS graduate and former Jennings basketball pupil drew laughs and cheers from both sets of students as he introduced each arriving participant and led a chorus of applause after the many individual accomplishments. His charisma with the students was unmistakable.

"It made me so proud of (Derrick) to see what he is doing with his life and the impact that he is making," Jennings said. "He has a true gift working with these students."

Jennings added that the day was such a huge success that he hopes to make the practice an annual event. He said Connections Family Center has also expressed an interest in attending one of the Bruins games this year.