Unified Basketball exemplifies the true meaning of sports
The Pine Bush High School gym was rocking. It was as raucous as it has ever been, which is pretty intense considering the high level of basketball play that’s taken place here over the past few years.
On this Thursday afternoon, though, it wasn’t the Section IX championship Bushmen on the hardwood. Instead, it was a group of champions of another type.
Pine Bush kicked off its Unified Basketball season on April 19 with a game against Valley Central. Pine Bush came out on top, but that’s not really the story.
This team is quite unique. It is made up of high school students with and without intellectual disabilities. At all times, there are at least three special education students on the floor with their general education teammates.
Athletic Director Michael Gillespie said he knew he wanted Pine Bush to be a part of this Unified sports movement as soon as he heard of it.
“When I heard about this opportunity, I knew we should offer it at Pine Bush,” said Gillespie.
He mentioned it to Superintendent Tim Mains, who asked for and received school board approved. Gillespie has worked with the special education teachers to get students interested. It didn’t take much persuading to get players.
“The students in our Life Skills program jumped at the chance to compete in this varsity sport,” said Gillespie. “Equally as gratifying, our volunteer partners from the high school were thrilled to play as well.”
Because this is a varsity sport, players who participate on the Pine Bush varsity basketball teams could not participate in the unified program because they’ve used their basketball eligibility. That didn’t stop them from coming out and cheering on their team.
“It was great to see our basketball players in the stands cheering on the unified team,” said Gillespie. “That’s what this is all about.”
The Unified Sports Program is a collaboration between the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics New York. According to the NYSPHSAA website, the three main components of Project Unify are: To combine athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team and contribute their own unique skills; to provide leadership opportunities to students and to provide opportunities for all students to participate in school-wide campaigns and activities.
Varsity football coach Jim Wright took on the coaching duties for the unified team. His experience was one of the most rewarding in his 24-year career.
“I feel so honored to be the coach of not only incredible athletes but even better people,” said Wright. “After coaching for more than 24 years, I must say that this experience has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I only hope that I have inspired them as much as they have inspired me.”
The team had a six-game schedule this year against teams from Valley Central, Monroe-Woodbury, Middletown and Warwick. At the halftime break at each game, players competed in skill drills, which were both competitive and fun.
At the end of the six games, the team was an impressive 4-2.
Senior Jenna Maggiolo is the captain of the track team. She was one of the first to volunteer to be part of this team.
“Since the first practice when I walked in the room and saw everyone smiling, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Jenna. “I understand that kids with disabilities do not get these opportunities. Being a part of this team, we realize we have so much more in common. This experience has created so many friendships.”
Robyn Windle, a ninth grader, was hands down one of the most enthusiastic players on the team, according to Gillespie, waving his arms to the crowd every time he went into a game.
“I really like getting the crowd going,” said Robyn.
He also liked the game itself.
“I like playing hard and being part of the team,” he added. “I liked the coach teaching us new skills, like the chest pass and the bounce pass.”
“What’s great is this group of kids get to play a high school sport with their peers,” said Gillespie. “And their classmates and parents get to come out and cheer them on. It’s terrific.”
Here is the 2018 Unified Basketball roster:
NAME JERSEY #
Kyle Alicea 43
Adam Alongi 45
Emily Bott 10
Joseph Brinckerhoff 50
Cody Brink 41
Shaun Burgos Jr. 34
Jenna Degrote 44
Jordan Gribbin 3
Kearstin Heller 23
Ali Kheiralla 44
Lucas Kurth 55
Jenna Maggiolo 15
Amanda Nelligan 43
Sophia Smith 33
Trevon Thomas 30
Corey Wells 42
Robyn Windle 32