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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Unified basketball more than a sport for Canyons middle school students

Jun 03, 2024 01:36PM ● By Julie Slama

A Midvale Middle player bring up the ball in their game versus Eastmont Middle during Canyons School District’s unified coed basketball. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Mt. Jordan seventh-grader Jillian Lundberg was excited for Canyons Middle School’s unified basketball tournament to start.

“I played last year and have been waiting to play again this year,” Jillian said. “I did Sports Day in elementary school until COVID came and stopped it. It’s just fun to be with friends and play together.”

She, and student-athletes from seven other schools, stood solemnly while Mt. Jordan sixth-grader Dash Johnson and eighth-grader Maggie Goodfellow said the Special Olympics athletes’ pledge before the games began.

In unified coed basketball, there are five players on the court, typically three athletes and two partners, and teams play against other squads of similar ability, said Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator.

“It’s exciting we’re starting to see the younger age get involved in unified sports and Special Olympics,” he said. “We have students at 80 high schools doing it and now, we have two tournaments with 24 middle schools. Several schools brought more than one team.”

Many of the students learned and practiced skills in the eight weeks leading up to the tournament. At the tournament, players were awarded medals and had their names announced.

“Within Special Olympics, we recommend middle schools do a recreational model where they can show their skills and have fun. It’s a little competitive, and we encourage them practicing and building up their skills, but we just want to have fun,” Iacobazzi said.

At the Canyons tournament, Canyons School District’s Special Education Administrator Linda Hall said the play isn’t for first, second and third places.

“We want them to just play,” she said. “It’s not about winning. It’s about enjoying it and the joy of the sport and being part of a team. We want to award each of our players with a medal.”

Iacobazzi said that through unified sports, students are learning teamwork and sportsmanship, and it helps promote friendship within the schools.

“They’re learning that inclusivity is important at any age; everyone needs a friend and wants to be included,” he said. 

Hall agrees: “This builds mentorship and friendship, leadership skills and long friendships. I’m hoping our peer students know that they can see the capability of that student who may have a disability. These students have a gift, a talent and so much that they can bring to them as a friend. And they can be the leader to them.”

Midvale Middle School athlete Isaac Tenario said he likes getting to have fun, eat lunch and hang out with his teammates when they’re not practicing.

“On the court, we get the most basketballs in the hoop so our team gets lots of points,” the eighth grader said. “We’ve become good friends.”

Eighth-grader Lily Barney’s favorite sport is basketball.

“I like to shoot, and I’ve made three baskets so far,” she said during the tournament. “I practiced a lot for this. Sometimes I practice with my dad in my driveway, but he’s too tall. I mostly practice at school with my friends on the team. We practice passing and rebounding. It’s fun.”

Her dad, Scott, was there to cheer on his daughter and her team.

“She likes to have friends, and this is a good way for her to get to make friends and learn how to play with others,” he said. “It gives her a feel of accomplishment. That makes her happy.”

Her principal, Stacy Kutrzhals, was cheering on the students as well.

“It makes my heart happy that they get to be included in something that they should be included,” she said, adding that special education students are included in morning announcements, clubs and every aspect of the school. “This is the way it should be.”

At a break, Draper Park Middle student-athletes were discussing their games.

Sixth-grader Jocie Richards had made nearly every shot.

“I made 15 shots to help our team,” she said. “I like playing with the team. It’s cool.”

Teammate Jacob Molina is an eighth-grade peer tutor.

“As a peer tutor in science, I help by writing stuff down; I make sure they’re paying attention to the lecture,” he said. “On the court, we’re working together and that’s fun.”

Draper Park special education teacher Morgann Collins also was a peer tutor and unified basketball partner at her high school.

“I loved that experience so when they wanted to start unified basketball in middle school last year, I jumped to get us involved,” she said. “It’s fun to give the athletes an opportunity to play on a team that they may not normally have the chance to. This gives them the opportunity to be part of a team and represent our school.”

Collins said it helps her peer tutors to support their partners outside of academics. 

“It’s fun for the peer tutors to see the athletes participate in basketball where they may not know that they have these skills. They’re seeing each other in a different light,” she said. “Sometimes, in school, we have some down time to interact with their partners. We have blocks and magnet tiles and they’ll build something. Or they will pull books from our classroom library and read together, or they will dance; my students love to dance to this YouTube video called ‘Twenty Trucks.’”

Union eighth-grader Henry Montague enjoys having lunch with his teammates.

“Today, I like to dribble and make baskets; I’ve made four,” he said. “My teacher, coach (Jeremy) Wright, taught me how to play basketball. He’s weird and old, but he’s funny. I like him.”

Wright, who coaches along with Zachary Schlesinger, said coaching allows him to engage with the students more personally.

“I enjoy their different characters and personalities on that informal level and we smile and laugh together,” he said. “I like seeing the efforts and determination of these players and then seeing when they succeed, to say how much fun they’re having. Our partners are very amazing. They have so much patience and a desire to help, which allows these students this amazing experience.”

A Draper Park Middle School peer tutor mother, who wished to remain anonymous, echoes that sentiment.

“This brings out the best of these kids,” she said. “I’m so thankful for the chance that these peer tutors have given their peers to play.”

Midvale Middle School Assistant Principal Courtney Long ran the tournament.

“I love seeing them smile,” he said. “Sometimes when they’re in class, they may not be outgoing. But here, they’re running up and down as they’re playing. They’re having a great time. It’s just fun to see them coming out of their shell and playing together with their peers.” λ