Unified basketball closes divide between special education program, basketball team

Sophomore+Isabella+Baker+runs+down+the+tunnel+of+football+players+and+cheerleaders+to+play+in+the+tournament.+Unified+basketball+played+against+Turner+Ashby%2C+Spotswood+and+East+Rockingham+high+schools+Oct.+20.

Jireh Perez

Sophomore Isabella Baker runs down the tunnel of football players and cheerleaders to play in the tournament. Unified basketball played against Turner Ashby, Spotswood and East Rockingham high schools Oct. 20.

By Riley Thompson , Harrisonburg High School

It’s that time of year again when the basketball court represents unity. HHS has had a unified basketball team for about five years now. Special education teachers Allie Wells and Haylee Watson are the coaches for the team this year. The ability for these students to play on a team and work with other players is an irreplaceable experience, according to Wells.

“It’s important for everybody to have an opportunity to be engaged in sports or extracurriculars, but for these guys especially they really enjoy it. I’ve seen a massive difference in the way they were interacting with each other, in and out of the school setting,” Wells said. “It just brings out a lot of confidence, so that was really good. The fans cheering for them and the basketball players helping out boosted a lot of confidence.”

Getting to perform in front of their peers is something many of the players enjoy.

I think the importance of it is all about inclusion and showing everyone in the school that these students are capable and that they are just like everyone else and can be included in sports as well as academics.”

— Haylee Watson

“I think the importance of it is all about inclusion and showing everyone in the school that these students are capable and that they are just like everyone else and can be included in sports as well as academics. I’m super excited for the home game and for everyone to be able to come and see that,” Watson said. 

Many of the students on the team have had prior experience with playing Unified, leaving even more anticipation for the first home game.

“They were super excited [for the game at Broadway High School]. We just got our matching shirts today, so some of our students are super excited. A lot of them have played before so they know the excitement that comes around playing in front of their peers. I definitely think they’re super stoked for this home game,” Watson said.

The team aspect of Unified makes the games very exciting for players such as Ella Schminkey-Ward, who is in the post-graduate special education program and has been playing Unified for four years.

“Running, shooting, passing the basketball and working together with my team are my favorite parts of playing,” Schminkey-Ward said.

Having the opportunity to be involved in other aspects of team unity such as having managers and matching t-shirts has really helped the team work together and feel like they are all a part of a team.

“It just goes to show that these students are capable of friendships and capable of being included in sports,” Watson said. “A cool thing that we have this year is that we have two students that are our peer mentors, Erica Beck and Kiele Neil, but they actually come and support us. They were our cheerleaders and [made] sure students knew how to get water and stuff like that, so they were kind of our team managers. [It] was super cool because that’s how any other team is. Football players have team managers, they have coaches, they have uniforms and everything, so that felt really cool to bring everyone together and have all the different parts.” 

It just goes to show that these students are capable of friendships and capable of being included in sports.”

— Haylee Watson

Seeing the end product of all the players out there on the court is the most rewarding part for Wills and Watson.

“I just love watching the games and I love seeing parents and how happy they are at games. It’s a really fun experience,” Wills said.

Having her family at games was one of the most exciting parts for first-time player sophomore Elyssa Perry.

“I enjoy playing basketball because I had a good time with the team. I had a wonderful time and my family watched me play,” Perry said.

Along with the Unified players, some players on the basketball team came out to help and support the players on the court. Senior Jadon Burgess was one of the players that helped out.

“It is a really good experience to see the students get excited about playing along with the support they receive from the people that come to watch,” Burgess said.

This story was originally published on The Newsstreak on November 11, 2022.