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The Auglaize County Mustangs went to New Philadelphia Saturday morning with high hopes.
They returned as state champions.
The Mustangs won the state Special Olympics Division III basketball tournament championship with an 81-61 win over the Fayette County Dragons.
A team can be comprised of players between the ages of 13 and 40 who have some form of disability.
Members of the championship team included Eric Flory, Matt Moorman, Anthony McDermitt, Mike Abernathy, Scott Campbell, Nathan Kettler, Logan Stechman, Tyler Conner, Matt Campbell, Angie Gossard, Jim Hassenauer, Mike Moore and Charles Knostman.
Bryan Stechman is the head coach of the team and his brother-in-law, Tom Conner, is the assistant coach. Both agreed the team’s success was due to thee players’ hard work and good nature.
“We practiced twice a week and played on Wednesdays,” Stechman said. “They were always good-spirited and every win boosted their moral. It meant a lot to the athletes and their families and it was a good learning experience.”
“It was an enjoyable experience,” Conner said. “They have been playing together for years.”
The trail to the state championship was not easy for the Mustangs. They had to win in the area tournament in Bluffton and the district tournament in Van Buren to earn the right to the state tournament in New Philadelphia.
In the championship game against Fayette County, the Mustangs seemed to have put the game away by rolling up a 47-18 half-time lead. but Fayette County countered with a huge comeback attempt and outscored the Mustangs 23-9 in the third period to climb back in the game, 56-41.
However the Mustangs countered with “lights out” shooting, scoring 15 points over those last two minutes of the game.
“It seemed we couldn’t miss anything in that last two minutes,” Stechman said.
The win provided the icing to an undefeated season which saw the Mustangs go 10-0.
The team kicked off the season by hosting a four-team holiday tournament in December and played all of their home games at St. Marys Middle School The win was the second state championship for the Mustangs, as they also brought home the trophy five years ago.
“We just wanted to make the community aware that these athletes are out there playing the game and what they accomplished,” Stechman said.