On College Hoops • Retirement center residents 'adopt' Viking women players
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Courtyard Plaza residents cheer on the Portland State women’s basketball team at a recent game.

It's not as much of an endeavor as helping make 9,500 meatballs for the annual St. Ignatius Church dinner during Lent, but it's still a big deal for Lena Atherton.

A partnership has formed between the Portland State women's basketball team and some residents at Courtyard Plaza, a residential home. Atherton and other residents go to some home games and visit with the Viking players. It's become like one big family.

'It's just like watching my own kids out there,' Atherton says from courtside at Stott Center. 'When they fall down, I go, 'Oh!' '

In a neat, community outreach program called Viking Friends Forever, the PSU players have been 'adopted' by residents of the Courtyard, located at 6125 S.E. Division St.

Ten independent-living residents signed up to adopt players for their careers. The ladies take the party bus to attend games and play host to the players for dinners, games, dances and other events (except pickup basketball).

Needless to say, the players stick out.

'If I stand next to one of the girls, and they're sitting …' the 5-foot Atherton says, 'we're about the same height.'

Vikings Courtney Cremer and Claire Faucher have been adopted by Atherton. Kelsey Kahle and Erin Yankus have been adopted by Ann Nault, who says the girls might be able to play basketball well but can't beat her in bridge.

'She's a tough cookie,' Kahle says of Nault, who served in the Canadian Army in the home country during World War II.

'I admire her a lot,' Yankus says.

When the players walk into the home, Yankus adds, 'they're excited to hear us talk about anything.'

Nault let them know that she played basketball once herself, 'but not anymore.' Basketball has 'entirely different rules' now, and Nault marvels at the players' skills.

'It's the way they can get around each other, dribble and get down the court,' she says. 'They do a tremendous job working with each other.'

Indeed, the Vikings, who will play at Northern Colorado on Saturday, improved their record to 14-3 by whipping Idaho State 97-57 at PSU last weekend. It was a marvelous game, which the Courtyard ladies watched from the row of seats just behind the Viking bench.

'They played exceptionally well,' says Irene Langston, the 'grandparent' of PSU's Kelli Valentine and Audrey Grant. 'They have done so well; they won so many exciting two-point games early on' - referring to three two-point wins and a three-point win in the first five home games. They had the Courtyard ladies grabbing their hearts.

Langston says the ladies have really taken to the program and the young players. 'Somebody does something well,' she says, 'and everybody goes, 'That's my girl. That's your girl.' '

Valentine notes that she doesn't have grandparents of her own, but with Langston, 'We can talk about anything. And I say 'Hi' to her cat when I visit.'

Langston adds: 'The cat likes Kelli, and she doesn't like many people.'

Idea began with coach

Denise Mariani, aunt of PSU associate athletic director Teri Mariani and adopted grandmother of Kelly Marchant and Jamie Roupp, hasn't missed a game this season.

'Just to be so close to the girls, it's better than watching the games on TV,' Denise Mariani says. 'The ladies are just really tickled to come here.'

Teri Mariani's stepmother, Dorothy, who died last week, lived in an assisted home next to Courtyard and also attended games.

Lillian Breshgold invites PSU's Lexi Bishop over for supper, but lets it be known: 'I'm not cooking.' The players, she says, sometimes love the Courtyard chow - 'depends on what's for dinner.'

Portland State coach Sherri Murrell, the former St. Mary's Academy and collegiate standout player, conceived the adoption program while coaching at George Fox College in Newberg in the '90s.

It took off down there. One lady, about 80 years old, in the Friendsview Manor in Newberg, wanted to tie the knot with her boyfriend. 'And she asked me, 'Can Jamie be my maid of honor?' ' Murrell says, referring to the woman's 'adopted' player. 'That's how close they get.'

The program helps match up players who live far from home with new friends, Murrell says.

The Courtyard activities director, Laurie Mix, appreciates Murrell's effort to reach out.

'Their faces light up when they talk about the girls and games,' Mix says, of the Courtyard ladies. 'It just boosts their morale.'

'Regular girl stuff'

Mix says Viking Friends Forever is one of the more impactful programs for the Courtyard residents. Other player-resident hookups: the Viks' Katia Hadj-Hamou with Jeanette Kittleson, Delaney Conway with Alan Pulley, Sarah Cleveland with Joe Fucile, and Kate DePaepe with Ron and Margie Sumner. (Yes, men are welcome, too.)

Atherton says she turned 90 recently and about 200 people showed up for her birthday party. A spitfire, she says that 'Denise (Mariani) and I are the forerunners here. We egg things on.'

Atherton lists the activities that highlight the days for Courtyard residents: banana splits, happy hour, dances, downtown visits, shopping, Multnomah Falls, breakfast tours and, of course, blood-pressure checks. She tells of the 26 years of making salads for St. Ignatius Church dinner during Lent, and the meatball duty scheduled for next month.

But the relationship with the Viking players has been special, she says.

Atherton met Faucher and her family, and 'they introduced me as her grandmother' to Faucher's brother, who was on a visit home from serving in the military in Iraq.

'I can't believe you can get that close to them,' Atherton says of the players.

Then again, she adds, 'I make friends pretty easily. And we just talk about regular girl stuff.'

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