Keeping the soccer ball close to her feet, Erica Wheeler dribbled around three orange cones. She turned around, repeated the drill, edging closer to where the next teammate in line awaited his turn.
"Ready, Ralph," Wheeler said. "I'm going to pass it to you."
Ralph Gemmill captured the ball, and, to the encouraging cheers of Wheeler, began dribbling around the cones.
"Nice job," yelled Tim Collard, the team's coach. "You guys are doing good."
The Carroll County Special Olympics soccer team ages 21 and up were not just practicing for the fall games that August morning at West Middle School. They were practicing for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey next June -- the first Carroll soccer team and possibly the first ever Carroll team selected to compete in the national games, according to Sherri Wehland, head of delegation for Carroll Special Olympic soccer.
They'll be competing in the 21 and up unified division, meaning the team will comprise of both Special Olympians and participants without intellectual disabilities.
Over the years, this Carroll Special Olympic soccer team has been a tight-knit group. While some may come and go, the core group of athletes has virtually stayed the same, according to Collard, who's coached the team for about six years.
"Each year you look forward to seeing the same group coming out and playing," he said. "We try and get better every year -- that's what we work on."
Wheeler's a founder of the team, witnessing and helping its skills coalesce over the years. And going to the national games with her teammates is "a dream come true," she said.
"This is very exciting," she said, "and to think that I actually put this team together and got players and coaches -- this is just a joy for me."
The national games is the pinnacle of her 17-year Special Olympics experience. There will be 3,500 athletes; 1,000 coaches and delegates; 10,000 volunteers; and 70,000 spectators and families to watch athletes compete in sports from gymnastics to power lifting, cycling to flag football, basketball to bowling, according to a fact sheet on the 2014 games.
In Maryland, sometimes teams or individuals must win a gold medal in state games to be in the running for nationals. Then, names are drawn out of a hat so that they're randomly selected to fill Maryland's allotted spots, according to Melissa Kelly, Special Olympics Maryland senior sports director.
Other times, like in the Carroll soccer team's case, teams compete in an open division during the state games, which consists of both unified and traditional teams. That grandfathers them in to the random selection process, according to Kelly.
One other Carroll athlete was selected to participate in next year's national games after winning a gold medal in the state fall games. William "Danny" Ferguson, a 17-year-old North Carroll High School senior, will be competing in the golf tournament.
He's participated on the Special Olympics national stage before, his father William Ferguson said. His son loves golf, Ferguson said, he's got a good swing. Dan Rosenberg, who's coached William for two years, said they practice on Saturdays, working together on swinging, long putt, short putt and more.
Special Olympics Maryland and the Carroll County chapter are working on fundraising efforts to help support the local athletes chosen to participate in the national games.
"This is a huge financial undertaking for Special Olympics Maryland as whole," Kelly said.
Carroll Special Olympics officials have estimated that it will cost a total of $22,000 of local funds to send the athletes to New Jersey next summer. The goal: to cover all finances for each participant, according to Laurie Brewer, Special Olympics of Carroll County financial director.
The local chapter is holding fundraising events throughout the year. Additionally, Special Olympics Maryland is creating a fundraising page on its website for each team, allowing individuals to donate online, according to Kelly.
Participating in the games is a prestigious honor, Kelly said. And many of the Carroll soccer team athletes agreed.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Gemmill said.
And it'll take some extra practices, but it's a challenge Wheeler said they're ready to tackle.
"I think we really have to work on working together as a team -- exercising," she said. "I know I've been doing some extra jogging here at home, [to] get my strength up, my stamina up."
As Wehland watched Special Olympics athletes of all ages scrimmage against one another at West Middle School, she commented on the great sportsmanship of the group. And the excitement that's cropped up since it was announced that a Carroll soccer team would be attending nationals.
"It's such an accomplishment," Wehland said. "They've worked hard."