Sheila Cohen played in her first game for the Wrightstown girls basketball team on Tuesday night.
How it started, and how it ended, won’t be forgotten by those in attendance.
Cohen is a special needs student and the long-time student manager for the Tigers, having grown up with the players she got to call teammates for a night.
Wrightstown won the North Eastern Conference title with a 63-34 win over Waupaca, but that wasn’t the headline.
The night belonged to Cohen, who started the game and played the first 52 seconds.
She missed three shot attempts in less than a minute, her third one coming after Waupaca senior Victoria Nowak gave the ball to Cohen to give her another chance.
It was one of those rare times when the opponent wanted the other team to score just as bad as they did.
“Basketball is more than a game,” Nowak said. “It really meant a lot to her.”
After playing defense on the other end, Cohen was taken out to a loud ovation.
She has been a manager for her senior classmates since they were in youth basketball. She was with them when they were on the freshman team and junior varsity and finally when they were elevated to varsity last season.
Cohen has always just been one of the girls, never letting the obstacles she faces get in the way of her duties for the team and her friends.
“She has been part of our basketball team for as long as I can remember,” senior forward Alexis Wolske said. “Even in middle school, she was there on the bench cheering us on as loud as she could for the games she could come to.
“She was always there for us.”
Cohen’s speech is a problem and can make it difficult for her to communicate at times. Even her closest friends sometimes have to ask her to repeat something.
She also was born with congestive heart disease and has had three major heart surgeries over the years, spending weeks at Children’s Hospital.
Yet, she always seems to have a smile and is the silliest person Wolske knows. She’s also sarcastic, so her friends will throw as many jokes as they want at her and she will give it right back.
“Her challenges are wide-spread, and it probably has the biggest impact on her socially,” Wrightstown coach Mike Froehlke said. “That’s why it’s so great to see how the girls at school have really befriended her.
“They love her. We all do.”
The players don’t only show it at practice or during games. They have involved Cohen in their lives away from the court, and why wouldn’t they? She is their friend, after all.
Cohen attends birthday parties with the group. She plays with them in powderpuff football games and always seems to find a way to score a touchdown by the end. She has in many ways become a part of their families.
“This community, this school, this class have just been so great to her,” said her father Steve Cohen. “It started from little on, and they have never wavered. Not just on the basketball court, but in school.
“This is a great group of athletes, but a great group of kids, too.”
Cohen’s responsibilities are like most team managers. She makes sure water bottles are filled before the game and that the towels are clean. Whatever she is asked to do, she does.
Perhaps more importantly, Cohen has a way of making the locker room fun and relaxed. She serves as a constant reminder that while winning is nice, this whole thing is about more than what happens on the court.
There was no plan at the beginning of the season to have Cohen play. But sometime in January, Froehlke started thinking about how Senior Night would be the perfect opportunity to honor her.
He talked to his assistants and asked if they thought it would be possible to get her into a game. It was an idea they loved.
Froehlke contacted Wrightstown athletic director Bob Caelwaerts and asked if it was something they could make happen. Caelwaerts said yes.
From there, they took steps to make sure Cohen was eligible by WIAA standards. Froehlke talked to her parents and asked if playing was something she would want to do. The last step was calling Waupaca coach Nate Harms to see if his team was comfortable with the plans. Harms felt it was a great teaching opportunity.
“When (Froehlke) said they actually wanted to put her in the game, we were kind of surprised,” said Cindy Cohen about her daughter getting to suit up. “But very excited.”
The excitement only grew by the end of the night, because Cohen wasn’t done playing just yet.
After sitting on the bench for the rest of the first half and most of the second, her team had taken a big enough lead to give her a chance to come back in with 2 minutes, 40 seconds remaining.
About 20 seconds later, senior guard Alisha Murphy got the ball into Cohen’s hands. Her shot hit the rim and went out. It eventually went to Nowak, and like she did at the beginning of the game, made sure to give it right back to Cohen.
Cohen put up another shot a few feet from the basket. This time it swished through the net.
The crowd cheered loudly. Murphy and fellow senior guard Olivia Hohenstein congratulated her while running down the court, and Waupaca junior Kelsey Weir gave her a quick pat on the back.
As Cohen jogged slowly back on defense, she had a smile on her face the whole time.
She ended up scoring another basket before time expired. Cohen said afterward she wasn’t nervous and that she felt good about scoring those points.
So did everybody else.
“I can’t tell you that there has been a better feeling in my sporting life than that,” said Froehlke, who was grateful for how supportive Waupaca was to his player and team. “I have been involved with sports in a lot of different ways with a lot of different people. I was so happy for Sheila, our fans, our team.
“I told Sheila that she scored the last basket in the game that we won the NEC championship. We are conference champs, and she scored the last basket of the game. That’s awesome.”