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Murray Journal

Murray, Cottonwood unified basketball brings inclusion, engagement and fun

Mar 30, 2023 04:17PM ● By Julie Slama

With good shooting, Cottonwood’s unified basketball team took second place at their regional tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Cottonwood High sophomore Alizia Sherard was playing in her first unified basketball tournament.

As a new team to unified basketball, Sherard was excited, nervous and wanted to do her best.

“I was playing for my dad; he’s my hero,” she said, adding that she has practiced with him at home. “I like playing hoops with all the kids and making my shots. I was nervous at first, but when I’m on the floor, it feels like home so it’s just fun.”

It’s the first time she’s put on a jersey to represent Cottonwood.

“It feels good. I feel part of school,” she said.

Cottonwood players partnered with their peer tutors and other students to learn basketball basics —how to pass, how to defend, and when to shoot the ball, said paraeducator Libby Calton.

“Our goal is for them to learn, to work hard and mostly, to have fun,” she said. “This has been fun. It started with the parade of athletes; they thought that was so cool. Then, we’ve had some good games and people are here cheering for them. It’s been a great experience.” 

Cottonwood Colts met up with one of Murray High’s two unified teams at the Feb. 27 regional tournament, which was packed with fans.

Murray had held practices after school leading up to the tournament. At a practice beforehand, Murray High senior Vale Condori was shooting baskets. He likes cheering on his teammates, giving anyone on the basketball court a high-five and making baskets.

“They’re all my buddies,” the unified student-athlete said. “We like to have fun.”

Junior Jenelle Westenskow, who has been a peer tutor for three years, was playing alongside him. She appreciates the judgment-free zone offered by unified basketball.

“I like how everyone comes together and is welcome,” she said. “We become a team where we support one another. Ever since I became a peer tutor, this is the highlight of my day every day. These kids have such a big heart. They are the sweetest kids and being with them, in class or on the team, is the coolest experience.”

In unified basketball, there are five players on the court—three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves. Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors. 

UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.

“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.” 

At the regional tournament, Murray High’s Condori along with his partner, junior Tyler Cropper, took the athlete pledge before Cottonwood got second place in its division; Murray took third and fourth places in their divisions on their home court.

In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—73 teams competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.

At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, there was plenty of smiles and cheers as Murray beat Hillcrest High to earn silver medals.

“Unified sports is unlike anything else,” said Kim Domiguez, the mother of two Murray student-athletes, Braedon and Turbo. “It’s the spirit of the sport to give the ball to a different team and to cheer for them to score. It’s as much camaraderie and love for each other as it is skill and competition.”

Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the competition that was held at Weber State University.

Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.

“Utah is a state—we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.

Unified sports engages students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.

“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on- and off-the-court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”

Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”