Student with Down Syndrome is 'heart and soul' of York Prep's basketball team

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comFebruary 22, 2014 

On Wednesday afternoon at York Preparatory Academy, the remaining basketball team members who weren’t already out at baseball practice goofed around in the gym. They played with the shorter hoop and dunked and made ridiculous passes and blocks, like teenage boys are apt to do.

But in the middle of the gym, feet firmly planted behind the three-point line, junior Wilder Stokes was serious as he took shot after shot, diligently working on his skills.

Stokes is “the heart and soul” of the Rock Hill charter school’s basketball team, which just finished its first varsity season, according to coach Quantus Houston. He practices with the rest of the team, plays in games, is the favorite player of the cheerleaders and crowd.

The only thing that makes Stokes any different from the rest of YPA’s players is his genetics. Stokes has Down Syndrome.

But that doesn’t matter much to his teammates.

“Wilder just adds a level of integrity to our team,” said Miller Hoffman, one of Stokes’ teammates. “It’s just a joy to have him on the team.”

Since YPA opened, Stokes has been giving it his all on the basketball court. He’s a sweet, somewhat shy student who’s softspoken, but lights up when he talks about basketball, his teammates and what it’s like to take the court during a game.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to get him in almost every game this year,” Houston said.

And he’s often the highlight of the game for the crowd, said Hoffman and fellow teammate Trey Counterman.

“Right when Wilder comes to the scoring table, the crowd and cheerleaders are already into it,” Hoffman said. “They want to see him succeed just like we do.”

Games are fun and the crowd cheers for him and for the team, Stokes said.

The YPA team has a tradition they follow out in almost every game, said Counterman. During the last minute or so of play, Stokes goes in and his teammates do everything they can to give Stokes as many opportunities as possible to score.

Sometimes, the YPA players aren’t the only ones giving Stokes the ball.

“The opposing team would be generous enough to pass him the ball,” Counterman said. “They keep on passing him the ball to the buzzer so he knocks down the buzzer beater.”

YPA, which practiced last week because of the possibility of playing some make-up games, went 3-9 this year. Stokes never saved the game with his shots at the end. There was no dramatic music, no state championship, no parade. But Stokes himself said that having fun and letting everyone play is much more important than winning, and Hoffman and Counterman agree.

“It’s fun to watch him make a lay-up,” Counterman said. “It brings you to a better place.”

Stokes is “a ball of energy” in games and at practice and always gives 100 percent of his effort, Hoffman said.

And for Houston, who said YPA’s boys had their share of bumps and bruises in their first varsity year, that’s the most important lesson he tries to teach his players.

“Whatever you do, give it your all. If you give it your all, at the end of the day, they can be proud,” he said.

So while the other boys goofed around before practice, Stokes gave it his all. He dribbled and shot from the three-point line again and again until he could score consistently. And then, when the rest of the team started doing drills up and down the court, Stokes jumped right in there with them and kept up, too.

Stokes said he likes watching college basketball and that his favorite team is the South Carolina Gamecocks. When asked why he liked playing basketball at YPA, he smiled and looked towards the gym where practice was starting.

“Good game, good team, good coach,” he said, before heading back in to practice his 3-point shots again.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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