MONTGOMERY – Valley Central High School junior student Cameron McMahon has played sports his entire life, but never on a school team – until last May when he joined the district’s newly-formed co-ed unified basketball team.
Unified sports is a registered program of the Special Olympics in partnership with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which strives to provide inclusive sports experiences for all students, regardless of ability. Teams are comprised of “athletes” (students with intellectual disabilities) and “partners” (students without intellectual disabilities) and together, they play on the court (or field, or lane, or track).
The district’s unified basketball program is an interscholastic sport sanctioned by Section 9 and managed locally by the OCIAA. No modifications are made to the game – the hoops, court and ball are regulation-sized and all of the same rules apply and team members receive varsity letters. All team members participate in the game to the best of their individual abilities – Cameron is known for his great outside shot, according to Victoria Voloshin, one of the team’s coaches – and the players help to encourage the athletes. There are always three athletes and two partners on the court during game time.
“They all practice together to get ready for the games,” Voloshin said. “For both partners and athletes, it’s an opportunity for them to meet other students they probably never would have met otherwise.”
Students volunteer to be players. Some are also varsity athletes in other sports, some don’t play any other sports at all, but according to the team’s coaches, all are eager and enthusiastic helpers. Athletes are typically referred to the program through their teachers and the coaches are hopeful that even more athletes will participate next year.
“I think that a lot of people didn’t really know what the competition entailed when we first started out,” McFarlane said. “We barely knew most of the kids at first, but they were all such a big help – so polite and respectful. The community support has been great – during home games, we’ve had teachers, parents – even the lacrosse team came out in full uniform to cheer this team on.”
“We’ve had lots of support,” agreed McMahon.
The season cumulated with a tournament hosted at Monroe-Woodbury High School. At the event, athletes and players received medals, t-shirts and of course, their varsity letter.
Senior and 1st team all-section captain of the VCHS football team, Frank Torres, played as a partner on the unified basketball team last year.
“It’s fun – a lot of fun,” Torres said. “The athletes have a good time – I think it gives them a sense of belonging and purpose. It was a really rewarding experience to play on the team. The best thing I can relate it to is how I feel when I score a touchdown. [The athletes] get that same feeling when they just touch the ball.”
The district hopes to add a unified bowling team to its athletics program in the future and unified basketball will pick up again in May.
“We play six games per season,” Voloshin said.
“Wish it was seven,” added Cameron