GOODING, Idaho – Maizy Wilcox is usually too focused on the game to acknowledge the scoreboard. So was the case on Dec. 11, when the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind girls basketball team played at Carey.
Wilcox, a freshman point guard, knew the game was close, but she didn’t realize where her team stood until after the final buzzer. She looked at the scoreboard and saw a one-point win in favor of the Raptors.
She and her six teammates screamed in excitement, then ran over to give their 20-year-old head coach Lillian Gray a hug. The ISDB girls basketball program had earned its first victory in a decade.
Ten years ago, as ISDB felt the weight of the Great Recession, the success of the girls basketball team was low on the school’s priorities.
Around that same time, ISDB was in jeopardy of closing, largely because of the state’s six regional outreach programs – regional schools for the deaf and the blind that, in some cases, had more students than ISDB.
“(When) budgets cut, in every school, athletics is the first thing to go,” said Brian Darcy, the IESDB administrator. “It was for us, too.”
Through enthusiastic messaging and government backing, ISDB avoided closure.
It not only survived the recession, but its population grew. And after the recession, it not only survived, but its population increased.
ISDB’s enrollment was 97 as of early February, and nearly half of the student body has rejected outreach programs to make the long journey to Gooding every week. When the girls basketball team celebrated its win in Carey on Dec. 11, it was a payoff for the role sports played in the school’s resurgence.
“Sports is an actual draw to get kids to come here,” said Darcy, who is sighted and hearing. “You see kids coming here because it’s a way to socialize. It’s a way to become part of a team and to be involved. We do get kids to come just to participate in sports.”
Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind plays at the junior varsity level in four high school sports: volleyball, boys basketball, girls basketball and track. But as recently as the late 1990s, the Raptors played against stiffer competition.
Darcy said ISDB, established in 1910, was competitive at the varsity level dating back to the 1940s. In the 1980s, the boys basketball team reached the state tournament, with a key contribution from Ken Anderson, a 6-foot-9 post who later went to Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) to compete in basketball and high jump. Anderson, 53, now coaches track and boys basketball at ISDB.
The Raptors once had a wrestling team, and several athletes over the years, including Anderson, played for the football and soccer teams at Gooding High School. ISDB and Gooding formed a football cooperative in the 1990s, but it ended about a decade later because few ISDB students showed interest in the sport.
Darcy said it’s been about three years since an ISDB student played football or soccer, though some students occasionally express interest in the sports. ISDB provides sign language interpreters for any student who ventures over to Gooding High.
The current state
When opposing teams travel to Gooding to take on ISDB, they prepare for an atmosphere unlike anything they’re used to.
“Usually, a basketball game is super loud,” said Joseph Swainston, the junior varsity boys basketball coach at Bliss. “This was super quiet.”
ISDB has a gym of comparable size to most 1A Division II schools. Cheerleaders and a smattering of fans attend each volleyball and basketball game at ISDB, just like they do at other small schools. They cheer and argue like any other fans, but many of the spectators are visually impaired or hard of hearing. By nature of their impairments, they’re quieter than other fans.
The action on the court is perhaps the most striking. Most ISDB players are deaf but not blind, so they often glance at their coaches to receive instructions in sign language. A coach like Anderson, who is deaf, wouldn’t yell at his players or the referee even if he was steaming in anger.
Wins have been hard to come by for ISDB this century, given its small student body and inexperienced players. But the Raptors do enjoy some advantages unique to their home court.
Swainston and Connor Wade, the junior varsity boys basketball coach at Community School, noticed the relative silence affects their own players.
“My players stop talking,” Wade said.
In addition to the mental edge, Wade said ISDB has more size than his team, in part because ISDB has players from all four high school grade levels. Other North Side Conference junior varsity teams are made up mostly of freshman and sophomores.
Some visually impaired ISDB students have played sports, but the vast majority are students who are deaf/hard of hearing. Several hard-of-hearing students, such as Maizy Wilcox, can have normal conversations with people who have perfect hearing. Sign language is more of an aid than a necessity.
Wilcox is an outlier when it comes to ISDB athletics. Growing up in Kamiah, she played sports all through her childhood. Many students, such as Tyler Harris, came to ISDB with little athletic experience.
Harris, a Caldwell native, has always possessed a natural basketball frame, and he now stands 6-foot-5. But his family barely cares about sports. Harris is also hard of hearing but attended public schools growing up, so he often felt excluded from activities such as athletics.
When Harris arrived to ISDB as a freshman, he was nearly dragged onto the basketball court by his peers.
“There was some hesitation, but I did still did it,” he said. “It kinda made me think, `Why didn’t I do this earlier?“’
Harris, now a junior, was the only player on the 2017-18 boys basketball roster who had previous experience with the sport. That’s been the norm for decades at ISDB. The inexperience, along with small rosters, contributed to its drop to the junior varsity level.
Those factors also make scheduling difficult. Some teams in ISDB’s conference like to schedule tough opponents, Allison said, so ISDB’s roster size and inexperience can make it difficult to find takers.
About half of ISDB’s students live outside of the Magic Valley. Most out-of-region students live in cottages on campus from Monday until Thursday. All 11 of the Raptors’ boys basketball games (10 for the girls) this season were played on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
Wilcox’s hometown of Kamiah is more than 300 miles away from Gooding, which makes for a long, exhausting schedule each week. She wakes up around 2:30 a.m. every Monday, takes an hour-plus car ride from Kamiah to Lewiston, takes a flight to Boise and a bus ride from the airport to ISDB that lasts about 90 minutes.
She makes the same trip back to Kamiah on Thursdays after school.
Wilcox tries to sleep on the plane and the road before she arrives at ISDB around 9 a.m., but it’s not easy, especially on the plane. She usually takes naps after school is over, but when she’s playing sports, she often has practice right after school on Mondays. By practice time, her energy is in short supply.
None of that has deterred Wilcox from playing sports. Though she misses her family during the week, the communal atmosphere at ISDB outweighs the nuisance of travel.
“You’re around people like you,” she said.
Darcy posed a question for people who wonder what it’s like to be deaf.
“How badly do you miss flying?” he asked rhetorically.
He didn’t mean flying in a plane, but literally flying, as if you’re a bird. You don’t miss flying, of course, because you’ve never experienced it. This, he said, is how deaf people think of hearing.
“They see themselves as deaf, and that’s it. It’s a culture. It’s not a disability,” Darcy said. “Deaf culture has its own jokes, and one of the running jokes is: Why do farts smell? So deaf people can enjoy them, too.
We take advantage of our hearing, but to a deaf person, they’ve never been able to hear, and life is fine. They want to have more deaf people. When a baby is born deaf to a deaf parent, that’s a celebration.”
Feeling different, alone
ISDB students like Harris and Wilcox grew up around people who weren’t like them. They were often the only children in their classes, schools and communities who were hard of hearing or visually impaired. They’re not always treated poorly, but they simply can’t communicate with people who have clear vision and the ability to hear.
“I felt different. I felt kinda alone,” Wilcox said. “I just didn’t understand what other people said sometimes, so I felt left out.”
In many ways, ISDB has been a relief and a refuge for deaf and blind children. It has given them a chance to feel included.
Sports provide an extension of that community.
The school is so small, most of the students know one other through sheer probability. Athletics take that dynamic and shrink it, providing students with a small community within a small community. And sports mandate interaction between players.
“They helped me connect with people when I was at home,” Wilcox said. “That’s why I have friends, because of sports.”
Gray, who just finished her first year as ISDB’s head girls basketball coach, said she and her players formed a bond, in part because she’s not much older than the players. It took her a little while to grasp sign language, but she embraced the challenge.
Gray had to grow accustomed to her players’ hectic schedules and their Monday sluggishness (none of her players live in Gooding), and she had to adapt to their relative inexperience with the sport. She taught them the basics of basketball, such as ball handling, when practice began in November.
The inexperience also eased the pressure. The girls basketball team hadn’t won a game in 10 years, and it was playing at the junior varsity level. Gray could focus more on education and fun than winning.
That beginner vibe made the Dec. 11 win (and their second win in January) that much sweeter.
“The girls kept looking at me for answers. I just kept telling them, `It’s up to you,“’ Gray said. “You could see the wheels turning. `I can do this.“’
Like other schools, ISDB gets competitive with its athletics, but the fervor is toned down. Few expect to play in college, and winning is more of a bonus than an expectation.
Harris is happy he picked up basketball at ISDB, but he’s content to let it go when he graduates. He plans to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before becoming a landscaper or an electrician.
Sports are a small part of the school, which looked in danger of shutting down a decade ago. Deaf and blind children still would have gone to schools catered to them, and they wouldn’t have been forced to wake up at 2:30 in the morning to attend them.
But Wilcox, Harris and many of their schoolmates are happy to get up early and travel long distances to attend ISDB. They’ve found a community of people who are like them.
They don’t know how a regional outreach program would compare to ISDB. They can’t imagine playing for a varsity basketball team full of players with perfect hearing.
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