At Unified basketball tournament, everyone's a winner

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Mar. 14, 2011
NFA's James Rivard (#42) eyes the hoop against defenders from Waterford at the ECC unified basketball tournament. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
NFA's James Rivard (#42) eyes the hoop against defenders from Waterford at the ECC unified basketball tournament. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Winning was definitely not “the only thing” at the March 14 ECC Unified Sports basketball tournament at Norwich Free Academy.

“Everyone that played or supported the athletes by cheering them on is a winner in my book,” said NFA math teacher Kevin Clendennin, who has helped organize the inclusive sports competition for nearly 20 years.

The tournament, sponsored by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Special Olympics Connecticut, gives special-education high school students the chance to compete on a level playing field, based on their abilities.

Clendennin explained that special-needs athletes are paired with buddies from their respective high schools. “They’re all volunteers, and they’re all great kids,” he said of the buddies. “They get so much out of helping each other out and supporting each other.”

A total of 189 athletes from eight Eastern Connecticut Conference schools, divided into 20 teams, participated in the tournament, said Clendennin.  Teams were ranked by level, from students who needed one-on-one support to players who needed just one or two volunteer buddies on the whole team. “At certain levels, the partners can’t shoot – they’re just there to help out,” he said.

And help they did. Players with physical challenges were able to shoot from their walkers or from wheelchairs, with buddies providing a little extra speed and passing the ball to them once they were in position. In one of the gyms, the basketball hoop and net was relocated to ground level, allowing students in wheelchairs to shoot from their knees.

Players and their buddies start practicing each year after Christmas, Clendennin said.  Practices are generally once a week, but this year “we didn’t have that many because of the snow,” he said. “We do scrimmage other schools too.”

He added that many of the student volunteers return year after year to play on the unified team. Even graduates who have gone on to college return to NFA during spring break so they can help out, he said.

Each team played two games in the tournament, and while scores were kept for each of the games, Clendennin said that there was no “top team” per se. “The CIAC does give different medals for places in the upper levels only, but we prefer not to follow that,” he said.  “We want to treat everyone equally, so we provide the same medals to all.”

Unified sports in the ECC include fall soccer teams and track in the spring, he said. “It’s been fantastic. We’ve gotten a lot of support from our community, too.” IGA Supermarkets and Subway provided snacks for the athletes after the games. Other local sponsors included Bob’s Stores, Knight Capitol and Team ESPN.

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