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West Jordan Journal

Ball in: First state unified basketball tournament provides inclusion, belonging in high schools

Aug 05, 2022 12:13PM ● By Julie Slama

First Lady Abby Cox runs out with Bingham High at the parade of athletes during the first high school state unified basketball tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

In its first unified basketball season, Herriman High brought home ribbons from playing at the state tournament. 

But it was more than that. 

It was an opportunity for inclusion, partnership and belonging, said First Lady Abby Cox, who supports unified sports through her Show Up initiative.

“Every student has a chance to be included and every student gets the chance to compete,” she said at the opening ceremony of the state unified basketball tournament, where 32 teams played against each other — and sometimes, played together — for a chance to represent their team and school for a ribbon or medal.

“There was a moment in the state tournament where one of the players on the other team came over to our kid who made a basket and gave our player a big hug,” Herriman High coach Jill Ames said. “He was so happy for him and just wanted everyone to score. I’m competitive and I want to win, but to be a part of a basketball game where there’s really no one yelling at you, or at the refs or at each other, and everyone is there wanting to see each other succeed and do their best, that was just amazing.” 

The tournament included co-ed athletes from 25 high schools running through a gauntlet of Utah Jazz and Weber State cheer squads and professional teams’ mascots, all there to support unified sports. 

It is the first high school state tournament, said Unified Champion Schools manager Courtnie Worthen. During pre-COVID-19 years, the tournament was held for community teams vying for the state title. The 2020 tournament, which was planned to be a statewide event, was canceled because of the pandemic, and last year, regional competitions were held in place of a state tournament to reduce the numbers and possible spread of the virus.

Worthen said after the statewide soccer tournament last fall, which was held at Rio Tinto stadium and had the support of Real Salt Lake, interest in unified sports grew.

“A lot of it was thanks to the First Lady’s initiative, Show Up,” she said. “More schools started to see what unified sports could be and wanted to be a part of it, so we saw a lot of growth. This was an incredible event.”

That event included eight of the nine high schools in Davis School District competing, as well as the Jordan Education Foundation pledging to support 10 new teams, including Herriman High. Wasatch High’s team will even represent Utah at the national Special Olympics games.

Since Worthen began overseeing unified sports four years ago, the competition has doubled from 22 to 50 teams involved in soccer, basketball and track.

“A coach told me that this whole week they have seen inclusion, that their students have made friends with unified partners and even students who weren’t participating. They talk to each other and the students on the unified team feel like they’re a part of the school for the first time,” she said.

It’s not just high schools. Worthen said that by the end of the school year, unified sports activities will have quadrupled in the past year, bringing participation up to 160 elementary and secondary schools. In May, unified golf will be introduced at the middle school level.

Unified sports also gained the community’s support.

The basketball tournament, which was supported by the Utah Jazz, had four sections: two developmental and two competitive divisions. The winners of each division were recognized at the Utah Jazz game April 6, where a highlight reel of the tournament was shown. 

However, the focus at the tournament was on basketball. Special needs players, or athletes, are joined on the court by two peer students, or partners. The rest of the team regularly rotates in and cheers for both teams on the sidelines. Several schools had banners and families and friends cheering.

Ames, who has coached girls basketball at both Riverton and Herriman high schools, coached unified sports for the first time.

“This was a brand-new opportunity and I fell in love with it. They’re just amazing kids and their peer tutors are amazing as well. It was really fun,” she said.

Her team — five athletes, along with three peer tutors — went through skills training where they dribbled through cones and shot baskets from different spots, which identified their ability as a developmental team.

“So that first day, I got an understanding of where the students’ abilities were and then we could get to work on the basics, shooting, passing, dribbling. The partners were great to work with them and help them,” Ames said. “It was really fun to see their improvement during the six or seven practices we had.”

That led them to the regional tournament held in February at Riverton High. 

Thanks to junior Charles Wilcken promoting the event, Herriman High students filled a section of the bleachers and lead in the cheering. Several Jordan Board of Education members and administrators joined families supporting the teams.

“A lot of kids at school wished us good luck at the game and you could see the kids always smiling because they’re so excited,” Wilcken said. “Every time I got an opportunity for them to score, I’d pass the ball to them and get them to where they knew they could shoot.”

A highlight for Wilcken was in the last minute of their final region game.

“We had a player, and he hadn’t scored in the first two games and we’re really trying to get him to score and there was like a minute left in the last game we had. He shot it like four times…and he finally made it. He was jumping up and down and then the whole student section was going crazy. It made me really happy, and gave me the chills to see how excited he got over this basket,” he said.

Ames agreed: “To me that was phenomenal, to see our school unified and get behind us – that studentbody was cheering, just like any other basketball game, and treated those kids just the same. We’d hit a three and they all just went crazy. That was so fun to be a part of, to see them come out and support the team and rally around them.”

The team beat Riverton’s competitive and developmental teams and lost to Bingham High for a second-place finish.

At state, which was attended by Jordan School District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey, Herriman lost to Brighton High in the opening round, then went on to beat Jordan and Orem in the consolation rounds.

“We lost by 1 point to Brighton; we had a chance, we had the ball for the last shot and we couldn’t make it. We were right in it. Brighton was just phenomenal, just making sure everybody got a chance to score. Their team captain would rebound it and just give it to our players and let them shoot,” Ames said. “It’s pure joy, just that excitement when those kids make a basket and then look into the stands, look at their parents, everyone is cheering. They are excited to be there; they want to win just as much as everybody else. It’s just fun to see them be successful and get better.”

Wilcken said that he plans to join Herriman’s Make a Difference inclusion club.

“Kids with special needs are really fun to hang around once you get to know them; they’re really funny,” he said, glad to be a part of the unified team. “Unified basketball is not about winning and losing. It’s about just making sure everyone enjoys the game and unites through basketball.”

Bingham, who won the regional tournament, beat Jordan High in the state tournament after falling to Hunter and Orem high schools.

Braxton Thornley, who coached the seven athletes and five partners, said he was proud of his team and it was gratifying to see the players improve.

“We had a couple athletes who at the beginning of the season didn’t know how to follow the ball, didn’t know how to move up and down the court,” he said. “By the end of the season, they were moving independently and getting rebounds and making shots. For our athletes to get recognized for grabbing a rebound or making a shot, it’s a huge boost of confidence. Aside from competition, for them to just fit in and be able to do these things that allow them to feel successful is huge.”

But it was more than that.

“It was really cool to see our partners develop relationships with those athletes and learn how to support them throughout the season. It’s important that our partners have opportunities to work with these students who belong within our school community and still deserve a voice. Building those relationships is one of the most rewarding dynamics,” he said, adding that through the school’s Best Buddies program it will continue to give students the opportunity to interact.

Riverton also has the Silverwolves Buddy program which allows students an opportunity outside of unified sports to be inclusive.

“We have students that participate in our unified sports and say it was just so much fun. Once they do, they’re more likely to say hello to students in the hallways, go out of their way to make them feel they are a part of the school and that they have friends here and often get involved in our program so they can continue to support the peers,” coach Alexis Brown said, adding that a Jordan School District special needs prom was planned.

In fact, several sports teams, cheerleaders, drill team and dance company, along with Inclusion Cheer, came to support the teams at region. Riverton’s competitive team took first at region and its player development team took third. Both teams took seventh at state.

“The more we compete, the more unified partners we get involved and more people see what it is and realize a little bit more that my students can do this and they’re capable and just like everyone else,” Brown said. “ They have a few more difficulties, but they want the same things – to play on sports teams, to be included and participate on the same level. We’re not going to halfway play. We’re out there playing full as a team; we’re doing our best, we’re having fun. Unified sports are creating positive experiences for everyone.” λ