Twenty-eight teams, hundreds of players, one great cause.
The ninth annual Indoor Softball Girls Fastpitch Tournament wrapped up three days of competition late Sunday night and all teams and their corresponding Special Olympics athletes gathered inside the Southern Illinois Center on Saturday afternoon for official opening ceremonies.
Tournament announcer and Special Olympics supporter Keenan Rice said the tournament - combined with the baseball version scheduled for Jan. 26-28, also at SIC - is expected to raise $75,000 for Special Olympics Illinois. Tournament Director Bill Asbury said "thousands" attended the three-day event, which was made possible by an army of more than 200 volunteers.
"It stays here in southern Illinois to put on the activities for all the men and women who take part in Special Olympics," Rice said.
Special Olympics Illinois Chief Operating Officer Marty Hickman also noted the growth of the number of Special Olympics athletes in the southern region of the state.
"We just calculated the athletes we serve in 2017 and for the first time in our history, we went over the top of 23,000 (Special Olympics athletes)," he said during brief remarks. "And it's because of people like you, and all of the folks here and the folks back here (referring to the tournament teams behind him) so thank you so much for that."
Hickman, who retired as IHSA executive director in January 2016, also thanked law enforcement for their generous donations to the organization the past several years.
"The next time you see a police officer in your community, thank them for their support," he said. "Not only for what they do every day, but for what they do for Special Olympics athletes."
The ceremony was also attended by State Rep. Jerry Costello II (D-Smithton), State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo), Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi, Perry County Commissioner Dallas Bigham, Perry County Clerk Josh Gross, Du Quoin City Commissioner Dale Spencer and other dignitaries and sponsors.
The dignitaries also visited with the Special Olympics athletes prior to the ceremony, presenting them with medallions after a shared meal.
A representative from the SIU Police Department spoke on the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Illinois, which features 3,000 officers - representing every branch of law enforcement - carrying a torch across the state to gain awareness for athletes who participate in the Special Olympics.
Also in attendance was Hiram Brownell, a Special Olympics historian who is traveling across the state in a van as part of the lead-in to July's start of the year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics.
On July 15, the inaugural Special Olympics Unified Cup soccer tournament will take place in Chicago and a "Global Day of Inclusion" is planned for July 21.
"Everybody, families, athletes, volunteers, everybody's going to be invited up to Grant Parks/Soldier's Field area to participate in a fun play day," Brownell said. "If you want to play volleyball, you can. If you want to play softball, you can. If you want to play some basketball, you can."
For more information, visit specialolympics.org/50th.
Toward the end of the ceremony, the top four teams that accumulated the most signatures in the "Say No to the 'R' (Retard) word" contest had their coaches compete in a home run derby. Caitlin Asbury, Spread the Word Campaign coordinator, said more than 1,000 signatures had been gathered and more than $3,000 in donations had been received.