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Murray Journal

Murray High’s unified sports brings inclusion, sportsmanship, friendship—medals are secondary

May 20, 2021 10:15AM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High’s unified basketball team were all smiles March 9 when they finished second in the Salt Lake regional unified basketball tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Leading up to the slated May 1 regional tournament that they will host on their home field, Murray High’s unified soccer team laced up their cleats and shoes to practice passing, dribbling and shooting.

The team, composed of both athletes and partners, play on the field together, with equal participation as they form friendships over a common interest, said Jessie Agiriga, a special education teacher who also coaches the team.

Unified soccer is a coed sport, playing five-on-five on a field about one-fourth the size of a regulation field.

Many of the Spartans are fresh off of competing in unified basketball where six athletes and three partners teamed up to take second place in the Salt Lake region. It was Murray High’s second year participating in unified basketball.

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional tournaments were held in basketball as well as soccer instead of a state contest to reduce potential spread of the disease through fewer competitors and fans at a site, said Courtnie Worthen, Unified Champion Schools manager who oversees the unified program.

“We’re operating at the same way as other sports teams, with testing for COVID prior to playing,” she said, adding that teams also wore masks on the sidelines as well as sanitized their hands and basketballs.

This year, 13 teams competed around the state in unified basketball, down from 22 last year. Last year’s season came to an abrupt end before the state tournament when the COVID-19 cases began spreading in Utah. Soccer team numbers were up, to about 20 teams this year.

“Playing in unified sports is very important for persons with disabilities as it gives them a chance to interact; it may be one of their only opportunities to socialize,” Worthen said.

It also leads to more active lifestyles since many students with disabilities tend to live more sedentary lifestyles, and it gives them a chance to learn or practice their skills in sports, she said.

For their peer mentors, it teaches them empathy and a chance to include and interact with their peers who have disabilities, Worthen added.

“It’s a mutually beneficial program,” she said. “The best things are the inclusion, the friendships they create, how the athletes are celebrated and are included in school activities.”

Unified basketball is in its second year while soccer was established seven years ago about the same time as unified track.

“Most of the schools prefer team sports so we haven’t put as much emphasis on track,” she said, adding that both soccer and track are sanctioned UHSAA sports.

For Agiriga’s team, players learned basic skills on offense and defense as well as scrimmaged some in their 90-minute weekly practice. Oftentimes, partners would model the play, being coaches on the floor as Agiriga, Brady Smith and Drew Van Amen coach from the sidelines.

“Unified sports is about the experience and the feel of being a part of high school,” Agiriga said. “We teach to see improvement and to increase their confidence, but a lot of it is also the social skills, working with people, sportsmanship—and having fun.”

And her players did just that as they cheered on each other whether they made a basket or not, talked with the referees instead of rushing to a huddle during a time out, or dancing with the opponents for the fans instead of practicing layups during halftime. When their second-place medals were draped around their necks, they just beamed. 

“They’re really good at telling each other good job, and also, telling the other team the same thing. Two years ago, when we won our division, it was really cool to see them present their trophy to the rest of the student body; they were really proud,” she said. “It’s even more remarkable to see them happy with whatever success they have, have fun and lift each other up.”