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WEST RUTLAND The girls are running a layup drill that is customary at the start of basketball practice, while the music blaring from a boom box at center court almost drowns out the thump thump thump of the balls hitting the hardwood of Hinchey Gym.

At first glance, Heather Holzinger appears no different than the other girls, except that she alone wears a green and gold game jersey No. 21. The rest of the girls wear T shirts and tank tops in varying colors but another difference is not immediately evident.

Ordinarily, autistic children shun organized activities, detest loud noise and chose to be off alone rather than mixing in with others. But to Holzinger, playing basketball and going to practice has become something special she not only enjoys the physical activity but has become part of a team, not merely an individual with special needs.

And to go a step further, Holzinger says the raucous warm up music is her favorite part of practice, which has become a key component in her daily ritual.

is very athletic, West Rutland junior varsity coach Samantha Gilmore said. for her to do layups, well, she can do them. She knows how to dribble and likes to shoot. But she also knows her own comfort zone and takes a break when she needs to. 17, Holzinger is also older than most of the other West Rutland JVs. But that doesn seem to matter to her or her teammates, even though her being there is something of a trial.

While a student at Rutland Town School, she took part in the unified sports program that is part of the Special Olympics. She played basketball and bocce, bowled and participated in track and field, while earning her share of Special Olympic medals. But since coming to West Rutland High School two years ago, she expressed a desire to play basketball on the school team.

At first, the plan was for her to play with the seventh and eighth grade team, but according to Vermont Principals Association rules, Holzinger was too old to participate on that level.

Gilmore is a physical education teacher at West Rutland, who has Holzinger as a student and she suggested the alternative plan of letting Holzinger play on her junior varsity team.

took her a couple of days for her to adjust and it took her a couple of days to learn the drills, Gilmore said. now she the queen of the gym. mother, Lois Miller, said that it was important for basketball to be incorporated into her daughter routine. Routine is sacred to autistic children. Typically, they need to abide by a strict schedule of eating, dressing, sleeping and going to school.

The plan called for Holzinger to practice with the team after school and play in only home games. To get on the bus after school and travel to an away game was just too great a deviation from the daily schedule for Holzinger.

always hard when you break the routine all the routines have to be followed or there extreme chaos. said Miller. practice is practice; you can take that away from her, for basketball to be built into the routine, especially to accommodate evening home games, it a remarkable step in Miller eyes.

But playing on a team and participating in games is even more ground breaking.

very literal, Miller said. wanted to make sure that she learned manners at an early age the please and thank you thing. So when you tell her to go get the ball on defense, she would ordinarily ask because that would be polite. explains that Holzinger teammates have taken her under their wings. They show her where to stand on defense and patiently explain what it is that she must do to defend.

like big sisters to her, Miller said of the girls on the team.

Offense comes much easier to Holzinger, who is a dead eye shot.

She scored her first basket in a game against Fair Haven earlier this winter. It came late in the first half when Holzinger got the ball along the baseline, calmly turned and fired up a shot that swished through the twines.

turned around and ran back to her spot on defense, Gilmore explained. knew what she had done but didn show her emotion. basketball, communication is important and that presents another challenge for Holzinger, who has a vocabulary of only about 100 words. Her speech is somewhat garbled and words run together. She uses a picture exchange communicator what Miller refers to as a box in school. Holzinger demonstrates her proficiency using the device, to tell how much it is to play basketball. But she can drag it out onto the basketball court during a game.

very good at communicating when she wants to, said Gilmore, who concedes that Holzinger is like any teenager in that regard.

But being like a teenage girl is something Miller never dreamed would happen after her daughter diagnosis.

Being a part of the basketball team has opened the door to a world of teen fads and style for Holzinger. Miller said that suddenly Holzinger must wear a thin headband that is the rage with high school athletes, while Ugg boots and fleecy flannel pants were essential for style points. Holzinger has even gone so far as to want a knee brace just like her teammate Amanda Harte.

is not something autistic children usually do, Miller said. we went out and bought Ugg boots, I let her wear my pajama bottoms to practice and we bought her knee pads. But to see her want to be like a teenager is really something to me. It is unbelievable how much she has grown. But to know that she is part of something is the most enlightening thing of all. understood that perfectly one afternoon while both the West Rutland varsity and JV teams were waiting to have their team picture taken. Various members of the teams were egging Miller on about letting Holzinger go to the prom.

let me know that Heather is part of the team and that all the members of the team were going to be at the prom, she said. made me understand right then and there that they were there for Heather. this spring, Holzinger will indeed go to the prom just like the other girls on the basketball team. And oh yes, she also plans to play softball.
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