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Tharptown seventh-grader finds niche with Shoals basketball team

While many local high school basketball teams were making special runs through the playoffs, a special team was playing largely unnoticed, except by close family and friends. This group is the Shoals United Stars.

Shoals United Stars is a sports group created for students with different needs by Courtney Akins, a counselor at Muscle Shoals Middle School.

“I believe every child deserves the opportunity to participate in the sports they love,” said Akins. “Not only do we get to play, but we get to practice so many skills while doing so. We use a buddy system to help our players who need assistance.”

The group is made up of students from Central, Lauderdale County, Muscle Shoals, Florence, Tuscumbia and Tharptown.

The student from Tharptown High School is seventh-grader Caden Hill.

Hill has Fragile X Syndrome, a condition he was diagnosed with at 22 months old. He had a pulmonary atresia – a defect in which the valve that controls blood flow from the heart to the lungs doesn’t form – when he was born.

“Caden was delayed with most of his physical milestones, but even as a preschooler, he loved playing ball,” said his stepmother Tiffany Hill. “He has grown up with a daddy (Jason Hill) who loves all sports, and he has grown to love watching and playing himself.

“He has never been able to play on an organized team due to his disability, but he has always wanted to play.”

Tiffany said Caden got his first basketball goal at 5 years old and quickly learned how to dribble and shoot, despite his developmental delays. “As he has gotten older, his love for playing basketball has grown,” she added. “Every day, he goes outside and shoots basketball.”

When Caden started seventh grade this year at Tharptown High School, he made friends with some boys on the basketball team. “He talks about how they play basketball with him in PE,” Hill said. “He loves watching them dunk the basketball and do tricks.”

Two of those Tharptown basketball players are seniors Winston Nolen and Hayden Moss.

“Caden loves playing ball with Winston and Hayden,” said Hill. “He talks about them all the time and truly views them as his friends. They have made him feel included – because they have included him.”

Caden has learned how to spin a basketball on his finger and do some trick shots, but like any other young basketball player, his favorite thing to do is shoot three-pointers.

Hill said the family learned about the Shoals United Stars in August 2020.

“We contacted Courtney and were welcomed with open arms into the league,” said Hill. “Caden had a weekly practice, which he loved and looked forward to daily. They practiced skills, played fun games and prepped for playing real league games.”

Akins said the league has taken on a life of its own and has grown rapidly.

“The majority of these kids and families I had never met until they connected with me, asking about our group,” said Akins. “My STARS just completed their first basketball season. Now we will begin getting ready for our next sport.

“We started two years ago and have doubled in size and grown in so many other ways as well. I love these kiddos and their families more than life.”

Akins said it doesn’t take long to see Caden’s love of basketball.

“It was obvious to me the first night Caden came to practice that he loved basketball,” she said. “It was written on his face and in his mannerisms.”

Akins called the THS player “a pure joy.”

“He is quite the baller. His specialty is long-range shooting and dribbling,” she said. “His family is one of the most precious families I have ever met. They show up for every game and practice with a smile on their faces. I am blessed to know them and especially blessed to get to coach a player like Caden.

“He is a star in every sense of the word!”

Families that would like more information about Shoals United Stars can contact Akins through the group’s Facebook page.

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