WILDWOOD — The energy was high at the Wildwoods Convention Center Sunday as hundreds of athletes took to the basketball courts, ending the month in a local version of March Madness.
The Special Olympics New Jersey spring basketball finals brought more than 1,000 athletes to play dozens of games in the culminating event for the organization’s basketball season Saturday and Sunday.
The 56 teams of about 10 participants each squared off in games throughout the weekend and in the end were recognized with medals in each division — and high-fives and words of encouragement from teammates and opponents.
“We have from very young to old,” said Carmen Bannon, chief program development officer for Special Olympics NJ. “The players are all different ages and different abilities.”
The Special Olympics organization provides year-round sports activity and competitions in several sports for children and adults with disabilities.
The convention center wasn’t the only spot for competition this weekend — basketball games for the finals were taking place throughout the Wildwoods, at the Crest Pier Recreation Center, Wildwood High School, Wildwood Catholic High School, North Wildwood Community Center and the Byrne Community Center.
Some of the teams were community-based and others hailed from schools around the state.
“I’ve always been interested in giving back to the Special Olympics, it’s good for everybody to see,” said Middle Township Officer Brian Vergantino.
Law enforcement is also a big supporter of the Special Olympics events, and during the competitions the organization has uniformed officers give out the medals to the winning athletes, said Bruce Mathews, a retired chief ranger and now a Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics state committee member.
South Jersey law enforcement personnel giving out placement medals to the teams Sunday included officers from Wildwood, Cape May and Middle Township.
“As law enforcement we like giving back to the community in any way,” said Wildwood police Officer Spencer Smith, who was participating in his first award ceremony.
The season that started with 106 teams around the state was brought down to 56 who qualified in sectional tournaments to participate in the finals. The teams that placed in the finals placed either gold or silver in a sectional game.
John Lynch, the Wildwoods Convention Center director of sales and entertainment, said Sunday to the participants and fans at the end of the competition what an honor it is to have the resort town host the finals for the past 15 years.
“We’ve been able to see thousands of medals be given away,” he said to the crowd, met with cheers. “Special Olympics rocks.”