Unified Basketball Develops New Friendships, Training and Competition
A new basketball team takes to the courts in May at Amherst Central High School with the introduction of a unified basketball team. The unified team provides an opportunity for students with intellectual disabilities to participate in an interscholastic sport with students without disabilities who partner with them on the court.
Through the team, students who did not typically interact during the day are now practicing together on the courts, having conversations at school, and high-fiving each other in the hallways.
“Practices have been going really well,” said Jennifer Higgins, team coach who is the wellness teacher at Smallwood Drive Elementary. “The sport of basketball is well suited for a unified team because of the teamwork involved. It's a 25-person team here at Amherst. There are 15 athletes and partners who will play in all of the games as well as another handful of kids who are volunteering their time on a daily basis to help at practices and games.”
“This provides an inclusive environment for students with intellectual disabilities who don’t typically have a chance to partake in interscholastic athletics. It’s an authentic opportunity with meaningful social and recreational value,” said Dr. Kiel Illg, director of health, physical education and athletics.
A Youth Activation committee, advised by special education teacher Mary Baczkiewicz, was started within the high school to advocate for respect, inclusion and acceptance for all people within the building. Members of the youth activation committee support the unified team and strategizes, plans and implements activities that create an atmosphere of inclusiveness to partner with the athletes, help fill the bleachers for games, and give high fives in the hallways.
Practices started in April for the 15-member team. In the month of May, Amherst will compete against teams from Sweet Home, Starpoint, Clarence, Lancaster, Newfane and Frederick Law Olmstead high schools.
Other home games are at 5 p.m. on May 10 against Starpoint HS; May 16 against Lancaster HS and May 22 against Frederick Law Olmsted HS. Away games are May 14 at Clarence; and May 20 against Newfane HS.
Amherst Central High School is the 26th school in WNY to support a unified basketball team. Amherst has support from alternative funding grants, PTSA grants, Amherst booster club, and two sponsors, Lakeshore Savings Bank and Rochester Medical Transportation.
"I joined the team because I like basketball,” said junior Thomas Olson. “I like to shoot! And it's fun to get to stay after school and hang out with friends."
Higgins has a student manager/assistant coach with student Ben Botwin, who had Mrs. Higgins as a teacher at Smallwood Drive. “He brings awesome organizational skills to make sure that we are structured at practice, timing all of our drills and giving feedback when necessary. The best part of each day is seeing the smiles on everyone's faces as we celebrate each other and all of our accomplishments,” said Mrs. Higgins, who had coached girls basketball at Amherst for the first 17 years and considers the unified team a great opportunity to get back into the gym.