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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton wins first Unified coed basketball tournament, but it’s more than that

Apr 30, 2022 09:37AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In its first unified basketball season, Brighton High Bengals brought home the gold. 

But it meant 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—and sometimes, played together—for a chance to represent their team and school for a ribbon or medal.

“We clapped when the other team makes a basket—absolutely—but there is some competition because that’s part of life,” Brighton unified basketball coach Jared Denslow said. “What Special Olympics is trying to teach us is we’re helping kids with special needs to get equal opportunities. We want to treat people equally and to make it an even playing field.”

The Brighton team was treated to a mini-parade through the main hall where students celebrated the winners from all three levels.

The tournament included coed 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, since 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 to reduce the numbers and possible spread of the pandemic.

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 included eight of the nine high schools in Davis School District competing as well as Jordan Education Foundation pledging to support 10 new teams. 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 more than 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 invited to be 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. A maximum of two partners or peer students could be on the floor with its athletes, or special needs players; the rest of the team regularly rotating in and cheering for both teams on the sidelines. Several schools had banners and families and friends cheering.

One of Brighton’s teams won its competitive division at both region and state, the developmental team placed third at region and sixth at state. They had a total of 12 players and 12 partners on the teams.

“I got a call from one of my students’ parents who said, ‘Hey, would you be willing to do this?’ It just gives the kids an opportunity to go out there and have some fun,” Denslow said, adding that quickly the school community came to support the team from taking their photos to show on the school’s televisions to providing team members’ free physicals so they could play. “It has really helped to unify the school.”

He said that it helped teach some partners “to put aside their ego and realize, this isn’t about me,” and “see the smiles on the kids’ faces who were proud to represent their school and community; that was what it was about.”

Brighton’s practices began in February, working on basic dribbling to learning how to move and communicate on the court. Players saw one another and learned they could do hard things, so “not only does it help them with physical attributes, but it also helps them in many mental ways,” he said. “We also learned how to win with dignity and how to lose with dignity, just to be good sports and to be kind and to help other people.”

Denslow said that it also allowed them a different social skill activity and they made friends with their peers. The school now plans to host a special needs prom at the school.

Canyons School District, thanks to a Hillcrest High student who received a $1,000 Youth Innovation grant, will also hold a unified dance this spring.

Hillcrest, which finished third at region and fifth at state in their competitive division, was excited for the chance to play ball.

Huskies senior player Raymond Bryant was ready for his opportunity.

“I play like 24-7,” he said. “I’ve learned how to take better shots, have better ball handling, and pass the ball when my teammates are open. I like how my team works together. It’s been so much fun learning more about basketball, but also making friends with my team.”

His teammate sophomore player Dax Bowen said that it has been fun.

“We’ve learned how to throw the ball, how to move to an open spot on the court, how to block by having our hands up,” he said after playing in front of his extended family. “It’s just getting a chance to play, play with my friends at school and have fun when we’re playing basketball together.”

That’s how Jordan High freshman Tegan Mast felt.

“I like that we’re getting challenged to play basketball,” Mast said. “We’re really learning new things and getting to meet friends and getting to play; it wasn’t canceled this year because of the pandemic.”

Mast’s teammate, freshman Kaitlyn Unzaga agreed.

“It’s been so much fun and we’re getting to play basketball and learning a lot with our friends,” she said.

The Beetdiggers placed fourth in region and sixth at state.

Denslow said the best thing was a compliment he received when another coach said this team was “the kindest; they showed the best sportsmanship and for me as a teacher and as a father, that meant the most to me. That meant that as a team, people thought we were kind and accepting and that was the best compliment, better than the gold.”