COSTA MESA, Calif. — Louis Zaffino is a senior outside hitter for the Marina High boys’ volleyball team.

He got to represent his school in a different facet on a recent Thursday morning. He got his swings in, but he also yelled support to Vikings special education freshmen Moses Castaneda and Skylar Swanson as they tried to hit an oversized plastic volleyball over the net at Edison High.

The Huntington Beach Union High School District’s Unified Sports volleyball tournament was back. Six players were on the court at a time for each team, three adapted physical education athletes (students with intellectual disabilities) and three student partners without intellectual disabilities.

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Who was who didn’t really matter. All that mattered was the team at the event sponsored by Special Olympics Orange County.

“It was super fun,” Zaffino said. “I had a good time cheering everybody on and just seeing everybody have a good time.”

Winning helps, too. Marina swept the varsity and junior varsity divisions at the Unified Sports tournament. In the varsity division, the Vikings rallied to edge Westminster 20-19 in the championship match.

Marina’s winning varsity team consisted of Zaffino, Castaneda, Swanson, Mia Mariano, Riley Keany, Marlee Ware, Kerolos Davis and Ramsey Garcia. Mariano, a senior, is a varsity girls’ volleyball player for the Vikings, who also had their volleyball team captains in each gender — Maci Hendry and Joseph Nu ñez — assisting the junior varsity.

ASB students also teamed up with special education students on many of the rosters at the tournament, which also saw Fountain Valley, Ocean View and host Edison competing.

“It’s totally life-affirming, what’s happening, seeing people smile and clap,” said Marina special education teacher Butch Fredlow, one of two of the Vikings’ Unified Sports liaisons along with Jen Letterman. “It was perfect. It was really a great day. For a lot of the kids in our program, they’re never going to be able to walk into a gym with a band playing for them, announcers, scoreboards, people cheering for them. Getting that athletic experience, even on a smaller level, is such a confidence boost.”

Each of the district high schools takes turns hosting a Unified Sports event throughout the year. The ones remaining in 2021-22 are a soccer tournament at Fountain Valley High in April, and a track and field meet at Marina High in May.

The March event was high-energy throughout, with an opening ceremony, a DJ and someone making balloon animals. Ocean View teacher Courtney Gillett, the district liaison, said the events are good for special education and general education students alike.

“Sometimes these high schoolers don’t see outside of themselves,” Gillett said. “I see on my campus, after they’ve played on a team, they’re knuckling or high-fiving their friends. They become friends. All of the barriers are taken away, and it really focuses on friendship and competition.”

Edison High has the largest special education population among the district’s high schools. Edison Special Abilities Cluster administrator Joe Loomis said the program has about 200 total high school and young adult students.

It was a total school affair at the recent event. Edison’s band, cheerleading team and song team all participated, with the choir performing the national anthem and the American Sign Language club signing it. Edison teachers also brought their students into the gym to witness the tournament.

“The idea is to promote relationships and friendships, and being inclusive,” Loomis said. “I think our gen ed and special ed students learn from each other. I know my students look forward to these events more than anything.”

© 2022 Daily Pilot
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