Comets conquer competition

LISBON – Although none of the area high school basketball teams made it to Columbus, Columbiana County still finished the season with a state champion.

The Columbiana County Comets basketball team won their second consecutive Special Olympics state championship in Hilliard on Saturday, capping a two-year run that saw the team go a combined 24-1.

The Comets finished off their season and their latest foe on Wednesday night with a dominating 83-57 win over the staff from the county Board of Developmental Disabilities in their annual game at Lisbon High School.

“This is a good group of players to work with,” Comets coach Doug Berdine said. “These guys have picked up the game very quickly and work well on the court together. Every day they come to practice with great attitudes. There is nothing in the way of bickering.”

Berdine and his assistants Andy Gesaman and Melanie Cassinger have coached the Comets for three seasons. The team normally plays a schedule of around a dozen games against other county Special Olympics squads. Anyone who shows up to practice and is developmental disability qualified is welcome to join the team. Berdine and his staff see to it that all players, regardless of ability level, see playing time.

“We have a wide range of athletic talent on this team, but there is no segregation based on athletic ability,” Berdine said. “If a player shows up to practice and is willing to work with us, they will play no matter what.”

Practice for the Comets is no different that what one might find at a local high school. Berdine and his staff run the same conditioning and fundamental drills that countless other coaches run.

“The coaches really work us hard,” said point guard Brian Weingart, who scored a team-high 16 points Wednesday. “All the running we do in practice helps us control the games.”

Prior to taking the Comets job, Berdine possessed no prior basketball coaching experience, but was not worried when he was chosen to take over.

“I spent the three years before coaching the basketball team volunteering with Special Olympics in various ways,” Berdine said. “I umpired and coached softball and refereed basketball. I already knew most of the athletes and had developed a good rapport with them. That helped tremendously.”

When Berdine took the job, the Comets had 13 players. That number is now up to 22 with no signs of slowing down.

“This was my first year with the team, and I will definitely keep playing,” point guard Marvin Harsch said. “The guys we have here are a lot of fun to play with. It’s fun to go out there and play the game.”

That word, fun, is what Berdine kept coming back to.

“The whole experience is fun,” Berdine said. “It’s enjoyable to watch these guys do well and learn to play as a team. Most of them have never had that experience before. It’s fun to see them get on the court together and learn the game, learn that there are four other people who depend on them out there.”

Among the team members are Tom Baun, Bryan Weingart, Jamie Gordon, Jeremy Carr, Alan Striker, Marvin Harsch, Adrian McMichael, Marcus Andrews, Clarence Florence, Keegan Todd, Bill James, Ray DeWalt, Chuck Cummings, Justin Arabe, Adina Maxwell, Antonio Maxwell, Dante Boley and Jake Norton.

After Wednesday’s latest victory, the Comets paraded around their two state championship trophies as the crowd at Nace Gymnasium gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.