The GHS Unified basketball team will host the CIAC Unified Basketball tournament on March 1.
The Glastonbury High School Unified Basketball season is entering the stretch run with some big events over the next month.
Later this February the team will scrimmage for the final time during halftime of the boys’ varsity basketball game before concluding the season by hosting the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Unified Tournament in early March.
GHS’s Unified Basketball is part of the Unified Sports program of the Special Olympics that combines athletes with and without intellectual disabilities (or other developmental delays) on sports teams for training and competition.
In 1992, as part of an effort to reach school-aged athletes, Connecticut Special Olympics formed a partnership with the CIAC to bring Unified Sports to Connecticut’s schools.
GHS Head coach Katie Egan, along with assistants Paula Reis and Taylor Savage, lead a local team with a robust group of athletes and partners that have made for another successful season on the hardwood.
Both Egan and Reis were on the ground level of the development of the Unified program at GHS and have seen it grow from a club team to an official athletic team.
Reis said when the program first started over two decades ago there wasn’t enough space in the GHS gym, forcing the team to practice at Smith Middle School.
Once they transitioned from a club team to an athletic team, the operation was moved to GHS and Reis said “it has made a world of difference.”
Egan, who joined the program 15 years ago, said the numbers have stayed relatively strong.
This year they have 16 athletes and 51 partners, who are GHS students that volunteer to mentor and guide the athletes.
“GHS students really love helping out,” said Egan, who teaches physical education and health at the high school. “It is so fabulous to see; they run all the drills and make it meaningful.”
The partners help the athletes with all the skills related to the game of basketball, working with various skill level groups on Wednesday afternoons at GHS.
"To me, Unified Basketball is a place to be part of a community and work
together with students with and without disabilities,” said GHS Unified partner Ben Coelho.
Max Race, another Unified partner, added, "Unified Basketball means playing basketball and having fun, and I get to see friends."
Along with Unified Basketball, GHS offers a variety of other opportunities for students with disabilities — including Unified Theater, Best Buddies, and Adaptive Physical Education classes to name a few.
For Reis, who is heavily involved with the local Special Olympics, it is the relationships between the partners and the athletes that is the most rewarding part.
“[The partners] are fully committed and dedicated, which makes all the difference,” stated Reis, who worked as a Special Education teacher in Glastonbury for decades. “They really get to know their athletes and they make them feel included.”
For the partners, the experience is both rewarding and fulfilling.
“Every time I go to Unified Basketball it puts a smile on all the kids’ faces participating,” said GHS Unified partner Jack Shaheen. “It’s a great way to bring the GHS community together, especially at the half times of the high school basketball games.”
The athletes can range anywhere from high school freshman to post-graduate age (22) and Egan said over the years the coaches have seen a tremendous growth from the athletes on both a skill and social level while going through the program.
On Feb. 17, the Unified team will take center stage during halftime of the boys’ varsity game against Lewis Mills, which is scheduled to tip-off at 6:45.
Egan said there is an “amazing vibe” during the halftime scrimmages, which have happened during three other games this season.
“The crowd is going wild. Everyone is having so much fun,” added Reis.
The team will then partake in the Middletown Penguin Plunge on Feb. 25, helping raise money for the Special Olympics and the GHS Unified program.
They will close the season with the CIAC sponsored Unified Basketball Tourney, welcoming 17 other schools to GHS for a day of competition and fun.
Prior to the event starting, each team will be introduced with the school’s banner and a torch will be lit prior to mark the start of the festivities.
GHS not only hosts the event, they are also heavily involved. The GHS cheer squad will be on cheering the Unified teams and the GHS baseball team will be volunteering to help run scoreboards and various other activities.
The event will run from 2:30 - 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, March 1.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin