Audrey DeSisto and Jim Tildsley, who have been next-door neighbors for six years, are taking the relationship beyond borrowing the occasional cup of sugar. This winter, they are combining their talents to start the Andover Golden Eagles, a basketball league pairing youngsters with and without special needs.

They want to take the players to the Special Olympics.

Tildsley has been the girls varsity basketball coach at Andover High School for 13 years. DeSisto has a 12-year old daughter with Down syndrome.

Tildsley will serve as the league coach and DeSisto as director, doing all the scheduling and organization.

The program, which pairs special needs players with same-aged "buddies," is open to ages 8 to 21. Tildsley's high school basketball players, as well as volunteers from the community, will help run practices.

In the past, DeSisto had been taking her daughter, Devan, to play on sports teams in neighboring towns. The idea for the Golden Eagles league sprung from there, as a way for Andover special needs children and parents to meet and connect.

Knowing that her neighbor, Tildsley, was a basketball coach, DeSisto ran the idea by him. Tildsley didn't hesitate, knowing that it would be a good fit for him and his high school team, he said..

"It's a really neat experience for both (volunteers and players), and just fun," said Tildsley. "We'll start off very slow. The main thing is just to have fun, to enjoy the game."

Golden Eagles practices will run right after practices for the AHS girls team, so players can stay and help out if they want. Tildsley said it will be a nice chance to switch gears | for both himself and his players | from competition to just having fun.

"It makes it fun for me too," he said. "They (the younger players) will be learning teamwork, to encourage each other and to try hard; to have fun, and the rest just comes."

The first Golden Eagles practice will be Dec. 3. Sign-ups are ongoing.

DeSisto believes Andover needs a program like the Golden Eagles, because it has a large population of special-needs families and a strong special education program in the public schools.

"I moved to Andover because of the quality program for special needs. They have a good reputation for working with special education," said DeSisto.

"It will be nice to be able to stay in town, and great to meet other parents with a child like (my daughter)," she said. "Jim agreed right away, and it just fell into place. There is no better coach around."

Practice will be geared for the needs of the team, some of whom have never played basketball before. Because so many volunteers have come forward, including some Andover special education teachers, players will receive one-on-one attention. DeSisto said they'll play the team's theme song (yet to be chosen) at the start of each practice to get the kids ready to play.

After six weeks of practice, the team will have the opportunity to participate in the Special Olympics winter games, held in Worcester on March 1 and 2.

Devan DeSisto participated in the Special Olympics summer games, and won five gold medals in gymnastics.

"It's so exciting to watch the kids get excited (about competing at the Special Olympics)," Audrey DeSisto said. "The parents cheer for everyone on the team. You're pulling for everyone."

The program is open to players from all over the Merrimack Valley, not just Andover, and folks can sign up right until the first practice in December. Enough players have signed up already to form two teams, she said.

"I can't believe the response we've gotten, it's been incredible," said DeSisto. "Andover is really supporting us, and AHS has donated gym time. We've gotten approval from the superintendent, and we're ready to go."

Once the season is rolling, Tildsley wants to set aside special seating at an AHS girls basketball game for Golden Eagles players. It is also possible that the Andover Golden Eagles will scrimmage against the North Andover Crusaders, a similar team that pairs players with and without special needs in North Andover. Last winter, the Crusaders were Special Olympics state champions.





READERBOX

To get involved:

Special Olympics of Massachusetts is looking for Special Olympic athletes, volunteers, coaches and referees to help form the Andover Golden Eagles basketball team.

Players must be between the ages of 8 and 21. The goal is to build friendship, character, and inspire greatness. The program will begin Dec. 3 and will take place at Andover High School gym one night per week from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m.

Entry fee for players will be $60. To participate, volunteer or make a donation, e-mail Audrey DeSisto at Agoldeneagles@comcast.net.



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