BLOOMINGTON - An annual tradition touched the community of Bloomington Junior High School in a new way this year.
The "Hoops for Hope" basketball game raises money for a different cause each year. This year, students were playing for a former classmate.
The excitement over the student versus staff basketball game has been building for months. And there’s no shortage of smack talk before they hit the court.
"We have a really talented group of athletes this year and the staff isn't as athletic as us," said eighth grader Ellie Weltha.
"Every year, the kids think that they are going to beat us, but those last couple minutes is when it matters, and a lot of times the staff can just hang a little bit longer than the kids can," said Leslie Alappattu, one of the event's organizers.
"They have some really fast people. I think we just have to shoot really well," said eighth grader Colton Sandage.
But beyond the talk lies a greater purpose.
This year, every layup and free throw will benefit a former classmate...
"She's a girl that she just smiles all the time, and you know that people want to be around her. Her peers, adults. It just feels good to help her get through that fight," said Travis Drury, organizer.
BJHS graduate Lexi Peterson has been traveling between Peoria and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., for months, as she battles leukemia.
"Brings her back to the community and understands that there are people where she's from, from her hometown, from her school, that are still caring about her, and supporting her through this time," said Drury.
And their drives to make the baskets, pale in comparison to the desire they have to help Peterson feel better.
"I've known Lexi since my sixth grade year and it's really good that we're able to give something to her, to make sure she has the things she needs," said Weltha.
"We want to show them ways that they can continue to play it forward," said Alappattu.
As they fight for each loose ball, the real victory comes from knowing they all came together for a friend.
All total, more than $2,200 was raised from tickets and bracelet sales. The faculty defeated the students 78-73.