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Highlands eighth-grader plays with heart

Bill Beckner Jr.
| Friday, March 11, 2011

The Witucki name seems synonymous with Highlands athletics. It has been on Golden Rams rosters for years.

But not all of Adam Witucki's relatives who wore brown-and-gold uniforms can say they've accomplished what he has. No, this chapter in the family tree is special.

Witucki is different from his teammates on the Highlands eighth-grade basketball team. The fact that he has Down syndrome is just a fraction of what sets him apart.

"He made every practice this season, and he's the only kid who dives for a loose ball," assistant coach Jake Lauer said. "He gives his heart."

Witucki recently gave Highlands and a couple of opponents a reason to cheer — along with a fresh perspective — during the team's final two games. Highlands won both — 40-33 over Deer Lakes and 57-51 over Kittanning. With defense softened so he could enjoy the moment, Witucki had fourth-quarter baskets in both — the first in style with a dramatic buzzer beater.

Coaches Mike Foster and Lauer had run plays for Witucki, but they had produced no baskets for the 5-foot-9 forward — until the Deer Lakes game, Highlands' final contest of the regular season. With only a few seconds remaining and Highlands ahead by five, Blake Leri inbounded a long pass downcourt to a waiting Witucki, who caught the ball, turned near the foul line and swished a jumper as the buzzer sounded.

"I was like Micah Mason," Witucki said. "Yeah, it was fun. My teammates tackled me."

The East Union Intermediate gym roared.

"Both benches erupted," said Witucki's father, Joe. "Adam continues to believe he made the game-winning shot, and that's just fine."

Said Foster: "That shot and moment rank up there with anything I have ever been a part of athletically. The place went crazy. And, when the team came out of the locker room, people still left in the gym gave him standing ovation. A great moment."

Soon, Witucki was a local celebrity. He received congratulatory phone calls from Highlands football coach Sam Albert and athletic director Matt Bonislawski. Highlands basketball coach Shawn Bennis, an assistant principal at Highlands Middle School, came to Witucki's classroom to shake his hand.

Witucki's heroics made the morning announcements for all to hear.

"He's become a superstar, kind of," said Adam's brother, Jake, a junior who plays football for Highlands. "He's been getting texts and congratulations from all kinds of people."

Witucki wasn't finished. He connected on a 3-pointer from the top of the key in Highlands' season finale, a tournament game against Kittanning at Highlands Middle School. The catch that day: It was Witucki's 15th birthday.

Foster and Lauer decided to start him, and he jumped at center. He won the tip, uncontested, and headed back to the bench before returning for more fourth-quarter heroics. Kittanning trailed by 18 but rallied to cut the deficit to five before Witucki re-entered. The outcome didn't seem to matter.

"I feel any kid out there that is trying to better himself, it's good for him and the game," Kittanning coach John Davis said. "Hopefully our kids can take a lesson from that."

The Witucki family wants Adam to cherish his sporting accomplishments for years to come.

"Adam is special," Joe Witucki said, "but in a different way."

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