Opening ceremonies for the Kansas Special Olympics state basketball and cheerleading tournament are always exciting, but for one team member from Hays, it was even more special.

LaVerne Gitchel of the Arc of the Central Plains Buffalos got to light the torch at Friday morning’s opening ceremony at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Taking part in the torch run was a first for her.

“They handed it off to me, then I ran up the court,” she said.

In addition, Gitchel was named the Gary Samuels Most Inspirational Athlete.

“That was such a proud moment as her coach. That was exciting,” said cheerleading coach Brittney Danniels.

The award was a surprise to both athlete and coach.

“She comes to practice with a huge smile on her face every practice. She’s very excited to be there. She works really hard, is always focused, and wants to always do her best,” Danniels said.

Gitchel, 36, like many in Special Olympics, is a multi-sport athlete. This weekend she competed in cheerleading and basketball, and also competes in track and the Arc’s 5K running club.

She’s been a member of the Buffalos since moving to Hays three years ago, but has playing sports since was 7.

Gitchel got to celebrate with her teammates again later in the morning when the Buffalos cheer squad took first place in the cheerleading competition at Hays High School.

It’s not the first time they’ve taken the top spot. Brent Kaiser, activities director at the Arc, said the team has won each of the three years he’s been with Arc.

The squad also won at the Plainville regionals in February.

Brittany Mulner said she was proud of winning the cheer championship.

Mulner has also competed in track and field in the past in softball throwing, tennis and the 25 meter wheelchair race.

“I have lots of friends and family who support me, so I love it so much,” she said.

Gitchel said her favorite part about Special Olympics is making friends from across the state, but she enjoys the competition, too.

“I do get competitive at basketball,” she said.