Unified Sports Build Bonds That Break Down Barriers
MANCHESTER, N.H. — The atmosphere is buzzing inside the Milford High School gym, where a basketball game is underway, the score seesawing as the clock ticks down.
Milford is up by two with seconds to go. Then a player on the visiting Souhegan team scores, and the place erupts in cheers.
This is unified basketball, a co-educational sport in which students with and without intellectual disabilities play together.
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Players, coaches and parents say it has changed their schools, and their lives.
“In its purest form, it’s the best of sport,” says Jeffrey Collins, executive director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, NHIAA.
“Kids are out there competing, they’re giving it their all. The sportsmanship is absolutely impeccable,” Collins said.
That goodwill “spills beyond the court into the classroom, into the lunchroom, into the hallways,” he said. “It’s so positive.”
With support and guidance from Special Olympics New Hampshire, the NHIAA adopted unified sports in the 2011-2012 school year, with 18 schools fielding teams in soccer, basketball and track and field.
This year, 49 high schools are participating, with a total of 99 teams competing in those three sports, plus volleyball.
William Ball, Exeter High’s athletic director and football coach, coaches the unified basketball team.
“It’s the most fun part of my day,” says Ball, who is in his 45th year as a coach.
For him, Ball said, “It fits in well with the philosophy of education-based athletics.”
“It’s a perfect name: unified,” he said. “It brings all the students together.”
In unified basketball, each team has three “athletes” — students with disabilities — and two “partners” are on the court at one time. “The partners kind of assist wherever they can and try to set up and set the table for our athletes,” Ball explained.
Exeter’s unified basketball team has won the state championship every year since 2017 (there was no tournament in 2020). But Ball is quick to say, “There are no losers in unified sports.”
“The athletes benefit, the partners benefit,” he said. “It’s really a character-building program for all involved.”
Ethan Lindsay, 19, a senior, is one of the team’s stars. He also plays goalie on the unified soccer team. He said he loves the bonds created among teammates, the bus rides to away games and the kindness. “It’s been a blessing for everyone,” he said.
Fellow senior Connor McGinley, 18, who also plays varsity football, said being on the unified team has changed his life. “You make connections,” he said. “You learn about other people and what everyone’s going through.”
“You learn how to be a better person,” he said.
McGinley said he has learned a lot from his teammate, Ethan: “Don’t be afraid to take the shot. Don’t worry about what other people think about you.”
“He just shoots it,” he said, adding with a grin: “He’s a bucket.”
Cathy Lindsay, Ethan’s mom, said she loves watching what unified sports has done for her son. “He loves sports and he has some skills in them, so it offers an opportunity for him to use that in a pretty competitive environment,” she said.
“It’s actually literally made me cry multiple times when I see the interaction of the kids,” she said. “It’s a big deal in our lives.”
New at Souhegan
This is the first year for Souhegan High School’s unified basketball team. Kelli Braley, director of athletics and activities for the Sabers, said two members of the Class of 2022 created the program last year as their senior project.
Braley has been at the Amherst high school for 14 years, teaching Latin and philosophy and coaching field hockey and girls ice hockey before becoming athletic director three years ago.
In all that time, she said, she has seen some amazing things from her students and the school community.
But that first unified game, with the gym packed with students, teachers and parents cheering on the team, “was the proudest day I’ve had as a Saber,” she said.
“It was just incredible, the feeling in the gym,” she said. “Everybody that was there that day left feeling the same way.”
Braley said students who participate in track, field hockey and football also play unified basketball and she has seen how it changes their perspective, she said. “The game is the vehicle by which we learn the life lessons, but at the end of it, it’s really about way more than the game,” she said.
Recently in Milford, with the home team Spartans playing Souhegan, the score was close the entire game.
In so many ways, it feels like any high school basketball game. Parents, teachers and students fill the stands, calling out encouragement to players and cheering when someone scores.
But stay a while and some pretty wonderful differences emerge.
Fans cheer for both teams, and everyone gets a chance to play, and to score. Some accommodations may be made for some of the smaller players: a shorter basket can be wheeled onto the court, a smaller ball thrown in.
And if the officials don’t call every traveling violation, no one cares.
Small of stature but fiercely competitive, Souhegan’s Belle Stuart-Vail, No. 3, dribbles down court. “You got this,” someone yells from the bleachers.
Stuart-Vail takes the shot and sinks it, a smile lighting up her face. Students on both benches clap and cheer.
Asked after the game what she likes best about playing basketball, Stuart-Vail answers matter-of-factly: “I like to make a hoop.”
Jack Theberge on the Sabers goes for a 3-pointer and just misses. Milford’s Natalee Lambert grabs the ball and sprints to the other end of the court.
Theberge, 17, is known for his long shots. “I usually shoot 3-pointers,” he said, with a smile that managed to be both proud and shy at the same time.
He likes how players give each other the ball to try a shot, sometimes several times until the ball goes in, Theberge said. But he admitted, “I feel bad when it happens to me.”
How come? “I feel other people deserve a chance,” he said.
Frankie Green and Anngha Pillai, ninth-graders and members of the Spartans JV girls basketball team, are watching the game from the bleachers. “I think it’s a great way to show support for all,” Green said.
It’s something the Milford coaches preach, Pillai said. “We’re part of one team. We’re all part of Milford, and it’s important to show support for each other.”
Not every school has a unified team. “I’m really glad we do,” Pillai said.
Stephen Erdody has been coaching Milford’s unified basketball team since it started 11 years ago.
“The first five minutes of me coaching my first game of unified, I said this is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Just because you can see just such a difference that you’re making. You can see the kids smile, you can see them feel good about themselves.”
The joy is contagious.
“It puts a smile on your face,” Erdody said. “You can’t go to a game and not smile and get excited when you see that kid finally get the basket in.”
Erdody looks for a special kind of person to be one of the team’s partners.
“It’s about kindness, it’s about accepting people,” Erdody said. “You don’t have to be a good basketball player; you just have to care about helping these kids.”
As a coach, Erdody said he tries to make sure everyone scores — on both teams. If that means one of Milford’s partners makes a bad pass in a key moment, it’s a feature, not a bug.
“I like it to be close — or tied, if possible,” Erdody said.
Marc Maurais retired last June after 30 years as Milford’s athletic director, but he came back to the high school recently for the first time to watch the unified game against Souhegan. He’s proud to have brought unified sports to the school, he said.
“The biggest thing I have learned is how great it was for our entire school community,” he said.
Once a year, he said, a unified basketball game is scheduled during the school day so the entire student body can attend. “Maybe they’ve never seen these kids before in our school,” he said. But after that game, he said, “They become their little buddy.”
With two minutes to go, the score is Spartans 40, Sabers 38. Souhegan senior Aiden Vaz makes a shot to tie the score.
Milford gets the ball back and the players scramble down court. As the seconds tick down, Heather Whittier hands off the ball to Hailey Motard — and she drops it in, putting the home team up by two with just a minute to go.
For a brief moment, time hangs suspended, the clock frozen at 7 seconds. Then Souhegan’s Jessie Green makes the final basket to tie the score and the game at 44 all.
The buzzer sounds, and the gym explodes in celebration.
Carole Whittier is one of the beaming parents cheering from the stands. Her daughter Heather has played on the Spartans unified team for two years, but it’s the first time Whittier has made it to a game. She is amazed by what she has witnessed.
Heather, a senior, loves helping people and wants to go into medicine, she said. “It’s really heartwarming,” she said. “I almost wanted to cry, I’m so proud of her.”
“It’s not just about winning. We just had a tie and everyone’s excited,” Whittier said. “It doesn’t matter about the score. It matters about your fellow person.”
“That just is amazing to me,” she said. “It gives me hope for this generation.”
Learning what matters
Exeter High junior Holland Clark said participating in unified sports has taught her what’s really important.
“It’s not necessarily about winning the game, even though that can be super fun,” said Clark, who is 16. “It’s more about the bigger-picture moments, and being accepting of one another.”
“Everyone’s there for each other, everyone’s proud of one another,” she said.
In this first year of the program at Souhegan, Athletic Director Braley said she already has seen a change in the culture of her school.
“The joy that exists in our building now, and just the connections that are being made that hadn’t been made before,” she said, “it is really beautiful to watch.”
“Kids are high-fiving and fist-bumping each other like they never have before,” Braley said. “It just feels really good.”
That in turn can launch important conversations, she said: “Hey, guys, we don’t need to reserve that level of positivity and support just for unified games.
“We can be kind to everyone all the time.”
© 2023 The New Hampshire Union Leader
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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