There have been numerous memorable local high school sports stories this school year.
The most impactful has been the growth of Unified Sports in Central New York.
Unified Sports combines athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to create athletic teams for training and competition. New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) has partnered with Special Olympics New York to create a fulfilling and competitive experience for athletes, schools and entire communities.
Unified Sports is an official NYSPHSAA interscholastic program that started with 12 schools in the Albany area for the 2013-14 school year. Since its inception, it has spread throughout the state adding sections each year. This spring there is unified sports competition in 10 out of the 11 sections in the state with 140 schools participating.
“It has been amazing,” Nate Johnson, Special Olympics New York and Senior Director of Programming for Unified Sports said of the partnership with NYSPHSAA. “To have a partner like NYSPHSAA that has credibility within the sports world is big. We see the partnership as crucial for our ability to get kids with intellectual disabilities to participate in common high school experiences. It is vital and is incredibly beneficial in helping the community see them as valuable community members.”
Monday was Senior Night at New Hartford High School as the Spartans hosted the Oneida Indians in front of a big crowd, which was equally split for the home and visiting teams.
Unified Sports strikes a balance between real competition and understanding of the greater picture.
Teams are out to win, but not at all cost. As in almost every game, Monday’s contest showed the ability for all involved to show sportsmanship and the ability to give every athlete a chance to participate and succeed.
Mike Nassif, a New Hartford senior headed to Syracuse University this fall, has played sports throughout his life and joined the Spartans Unified Team not knowing exactly what to expect. While most might point to his ability to help intellectually challenged athletes, he looks at it from a different perspective.
“This has been great” Nassif told MYSR on Monday as the Spartans and Indians were racing up and down the court, adding “It’s the smiles on some of these kids faces in practice, at games, when we see each other in school, the whole program has been great for all the kids on the team, I am so glad I got involved”.
In most high school athletics, many parents have lost perspective. For those involved in Unified Sports, the fact their children are part of a team is enough. Nobody realizes the incredible impact this program has had on their kids more than the parents of student/athletes with intellectual disabilities.
One of the families rooting on the home today was that of 10th grader Jenna Lamantia, including her Mom, Kim Battaglia. “She absolutely loves being a part of this team” Battaglia said, “She (Jenna) competes in Special Olympics in basketball, but being a part of this team, with her coaches, her teammates, the practices, everything has just been a great experience for her, she can’t wait to do it again next year”.
For New Hartford freshman Eddie Elias, a Spartans JV football player this past fall, this was a chance to play basketball and be a part of another team at New Hartford. “I really like being a part of a team and this team is really fun to be around” Elias said, adding “the coaches have been great with us and it’s fun to see how much better we’ve gotten since we started”.
Eleven Syracuse schools got involved in Unified Sports for the 2016-17 season, and the Utica-Rome region joined this school season as Central Valley Academy, Oneida, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, New Hartford and Whitesboro started programs.
“This is the first year for Utica-area schools,” Johnson said. “Mike Deuel at Whitesboro has been big for us. He was pushing it with his colleagues and telling them we need to get this going in the Tri Valley League.”
Starting with a team sport like basketball paid immediate dividends and the benefits have been shared by all involved. Parents, coaches, officials, participating athletes as well as the entire community have felt the positive impact of Unified Sports. Kids with intellectual disabilities are held to the same standard as their counterparts. A travel is a travel, a foul is a foul, and all the rules of the game are the same as any high school basketball game.
However, there are special moments sprinkled into the competition showing the true benefit Unified Sports provides. In one game, a player ran into the stands to hug his mother after making his first basket. There are similar moments in nearly every game and the pride carries over to the school and the communities.
“Honestly in my 34 years this is the most rewarding program I’ve been involved in,” Deuel said. “That’s why I went into the business. It’s working with kids and seeing kids grow. For them being able to get over their anxieties is a big thing. From not even wanting to go onto the court, now kids are volunteering to go on the court and they go on the bus to Syracuse. Those are things they would never do before. There confidence has grown. There’s a huge bounce in their step.”
While the teams play to win and the competition is a part of the program, the wide-ranging social impact on these kids can’t be measured.
“The whole socialization aspect …. as much as it’s about basketball, it’s about working with people and assisting,” Deuel said. “It’s also about learning to be good winners, but also learning how to lose. There’s interactions in the hallways where kids would walk by each other all year and now there are interactions and a genuine feeling of acceptance.”
Deuel expects several new schools to join next school year as Camden, Sauquoit Valley, Rome Free Academy and Holland Patent are among the schools showing interest in joining.
Todd Nelson, Associate Director of NYSPHSAA, is pleased with the program’s growth.
“These kids with disabilities and those without may have not had the opportunity to put on a school uniform,” said Nelson. “Now they can, and it gives them such pride and it makes them feel even more a part of the community. It has been outstanding.
“The message we like to get out is that they’re all teammates and every teammate should be contributors to the team.”
With the incredibly positive feedback from all involved, the NYSPHSAA and Special Olympics New York plan on growing Unified Sports in the near future. Bowling will be added in the winter and the NYSPHSAA and Special Olympics New York have plans to further expand the program.
“Ultimately our goal is to have one sport in fall, one in the winter and one in the spring,” Nelson said.
2018 Unified Basketball Team Rosters
Central Valley Academy: Dakota Basloe, Ronaldo Bonavides, Willis Dixon IV, Tre Dixon, David Everson, Kolby Fical, Kqworo Hartwell, Bradley Hawver, DonTay Howard, Eric Rende II, Kristian Seymour, John Talbot, Nehemiah Terry-Petersen, Gavin Ulinski, Joshua White, Brady Zalocka. Head Coach: Richard Schoff.
New Hartford: Christian Martin, Edward Elias, Jasmine Martin, Jeremy Prosser, Caleb Wu, Nathan Santiago, Emma Schmid, Bailey Brennen, Kenneth Torres, Christian Taveras, Anthony Cappelli, Anthony Falchi, Nicholas Raulli, Osciano Swartz, Michael Nassif, Brian Simmons Jr.
Head Coach: Krista Circelli. Assistants: Jill Davies-Nelson, Jenna Lamantia, Tim Abraham.
Oneida: Christian Barbano, Andrew Sheldon, Trenton Piersall, Kyle Kimball, Jason Grinnell, Christopher Thompson, David Tilbe Jr., Joseph Vogelsang, Sebastian Dustin, Micah Lenning, Dylan Updike, Owen Taylor. Head Coach: Kristin Robinson, Chris Meeker, Austin Klish.
VVS: Ryan Roberts, Ian O’Neil, Sarah Wayland-Smith, Sean Bleaking, Kiera Warne, Hunter McCombie, Tyler Hollenbeck, Christian Brown, Nathan Brewer, Ryan Dam, Sean Ryan, Andrew Richmond, Kyle Knight, Sean Lambert, Josaiah Renteria-Agurto, Garrett Lowery. Head Coaches: Dominick Timpano, Carly Cooper. Assistants: Patrick Goodman.
Whitesboro: Alisha Restive, Sara Mahoney, David Perritano, Austin Owen, Rebekah Synakowski, Kyle Kothari, Matt Servello, Matt Heinlein, Zach Ruffing, Jaspreet Bhatti, Christina Pemberton, Mike Porta, Nick Paolozzi, John Potrzeba, Anthony Zysk. Head Coaches: Donna Deuel, Steve Heitz.