By Kristine Thomas
The score doesn’t begin to tell the story of Silverton High School’s Unified Foxes basketball team’s first game.
If points were given for smiles, enthusiasm, sportsmanship, hive fives, hugs and the pure joy of being on the court, it would have been impossible to tally the scores for both Unified teams, which are a division of the Special Olympics.
Playing against South Albany’s Unified team on Feb. 7, the Foxes prevailed with a 31-17 away victory. For athletes on both teams, it wasn’t about who won or lost. It was about getting to play a game they all love and having fun doing it.
“It was an outstanding experience for everyone involved,” SHS Unified Coach and PE/Health teacher Neal Glynn said.
SHS Assistant Vice Principal Therese Gerlits has volunteered for the Special Olympics for many years. She organized the high school’s first Unified Team and hopes basketball is just the beginning, with more teams to follow.
Many students with disabilities don’t get a chance to play on their high school teams, she said. A Unified Team combines Special Olympians with partner-athletes. During a basketball game, there are three Special Olympians playing with two partner-athletes. The goal is for them to play like a team, all equals on the court, Gerlits said.
“The purpose of Unified Teams is inclusion and equality,” Gerlits said. “The athletes are working and competing together.”
The 2017 Unified Foxes Basketball team members are Special Olympians Will Silcox, Marco Garcia-Ramirez, Jhonathan Shackelford, Dalton Curtis, James Dahl, Austin Swartout and Mehey Kraskov, and partner-athletes Morgan Dunn, Stephanie Zitzelberger, Jared Johnson and Adam Kester, who is also the assistant coach.
Gerlits said she hopes students and the community gets to experience the joy of seeing how much fun everyone has.
“There is a tremendous amount of happiness that comes with Unified Sports,” she said. “I would hope it inspires people to find new ways to participate in opportunities such as this, opportunities that create joy and promote respect and inclusion.”
Glynn said the Unified Teams are an outstanding way to address equality and acceptance.
“The real-world experience they get to be a part of should hopefully lend itself to some moments of understanding that it’s a really great thing to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments,” Glynn said.
At the game at South Albany High, fans cheered for both teams whenever a basket was made. SHS team members couldn’t contain their excitement when a fellow team member scored, a couple times wanting to go onto the court to celebrate. Opposing athletes also congratulated one another for scoring. Although there were two referees, turnovers such as traveling or double dribbling weren’t called.
SHS Unified Basketball games
Feb. 17, Feb. 22, 5:30 p.m.
Silverton High School Gym
1456 Pine St. 503-873-6331
SHS Varsity girls play afterward.
Admission is changed for high school games.
facebook.com/ourtown.smasm/ on Feb. 17.
Every player on SHS’s team has a nickname. Marco chose his nickname to be “Curry” after his favorite basketball player, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. From playing at home to watching it on TV, his enthusiasm for basketball is apparent. He’s quick up and down the court, taking open shots, especially 3-pointers. Gerlits calls Marco the team’s “secret weapon of speed.”
“It is super awesome,” Marco said of getting to play on a high school team. He liked how “everyone was cheering for me and giving me high fives.”
Dalton, a freshman, likes that he gets to hang out with friends and play basketball.
“I normally play in the driveway,” he said. “This is an opportunity to get to feel important and valued and have the community support the team.”
A senior, Morgan plans to major in special education in college.
“I love working with these guys,” she said. “I would do anything for them. There is something special about them and they are often overlooked. They deserve the same opportunities as everyone else.”
During the game, the SHS partner athletes encouraged the SHS Special Olympians to shoot the ball, with every SHS Special Olympian scoring.
“Just seeing the joy on their faces overwhelms my heart,” Stephanie said. “It brings me such joy to see them play.”
A freshman, Jhonathan said he normally plays basketball at home. He’s excited to be able to play a game he loves “with amazing people.”
“It means the world to me to have this opportunity,” he said.
When the buzzer signaled the end of the game, the teams congratulated each other and gathered to take a team picture. Adam said he has a learned a great deal from helping coach the team.
“They have fun no matter what,” Adam said. “They always enjoy what they are doing and they bring so much energy to the game. Everyone should be like that.”