Unified Basketball program at Indian River High School took center court on Tuesday, Jan. 8, as the Indians hosted Milford in their first-ever Unified game on the hardwoods.
Unified Sports — and more specifically basketball — is an integral part of the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, which was founded in 2008 and funded through the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education to use Special Olympics as a way to build inclusion and tolerance in schools.
The Indian River program features a roster of 10 student-athletes coached by veteran IR soccer coach Steve Kilby. In an effort spearheaded by IRHS Athletic Director Todd Fuhrmann, the Indians were able to get the program started this year after having it in the works for the past couple of years.
“What we’ve done in the past is we’ve always kind of had a Unified game, but it was only one game,” Fuhrmann said while watching his vision play out on the court. “This, now that the State has gotten together with us, puts us in position to have a team and we can compete, and include all of our athletes and not just our varsity athletes. By doing that, it’s full inclusion.
“So we are making sure this complements our Unified Track program,” which takes place in the spring, “and, hopefully, with this success, will lead to Unified Flag Football in the fall, so we can offer three sports for all of our athletes.”
Unified Sports programs are now in more than 4,500 elementary, middle and high schools in the United States, and 70 percent of Unified Champion Schools (pre-K through Grade 12) are engaging in Unified Sports.
For Kilby, it is a different experience from what he has been used to out on the soccer pitch.
“It’s a real humbling experience to work with this team,” Kilby said. “You know, the Unified players and our athletes who are working with the team are bonding together well, and it’s been a breath of fresh air, as far as athletics goes.”
The 10-member team includes seniors Grace Snyder and Grant Argo; juniors Kaylee Hall, T.J. Moore and Robert Sylvia; sophomores Nariah Showell and Brianna Ammons; and freshmen Gabriel Mouynivong, Clara Shepherd and Colby Wiley.
“It means a lot to be a part of this, and it’s so much fun to be with the kids,” Snyder, who is on the Indians’ softball team, said of her experience with the Unified team. “Obviously, it’s more fun watching them have fun, being able to get this opportunity to play in an actual game. The best part of it is watching how excited they get — like when Clara made her shot: hands up in the air and jumping around.”
As with many sports, there is a score kept for the contests, and the players all know about winning and losing. While the Indians came up short 33-25 in their first-ever game, the memories and experiences of this first moment will be far more long-lasting than the final score.
Shepherd scored her two points and was overwhelmed with excitement. Mouynivong was determined to hit a three-point shot, and when he finally did, he celebrated with a fist-pump into the air.
The team gets to practice, just like any other varsity sport, though they had just three practices prior to their first game on Tuesday. It is an opportunity for them to play and have fun but also, most importantly, to feel a part of the athletic experience of being a high school student.
The Indians will play a five-game Unified Basketball schedule this season, and will be on the road for their next contest on Thursday, Jan. 24, at Cape Henlopen. Game time is slated for 3:30 p.m.
The Indians held a 14-13 lead over the Buccaneers during Tuesday’s game, before a big 12-6 third-quarter from Milford erased the advantage.
Sylvia scored eight points for IR, and Argo chipped in with six. Mouynivong finished the game with five, Snyder added four, and Shepherd had two markers.
By Jason Feather