The thrill of putting on a uniform, being part of a team, and playing a game, or cheering during halftime, in front of fans is something many athletes get to experience and, perhaps, take for granted. Now, thanks to the efforts of Newtown High School students and faculty alike, some girls and boys — those with special needs who hadn’t previously been afforded this opportunity — are in the game.
Newtown High School, this past winter season, offered Unified Sports teams, comprising students with special needs coached by peers and teachers.
On the court, a basketball team called the Blue Blaze laced up the sneakers and practiced shooting, dribbling, and other skills. A cheerleading squad, called the Spirit Team, gave freshman Isabelle Shaw, sophomore Danielle Mola, and junior Julie Smith an opportunity to learn a variety of cheers and stunts along with the varsity program girls. Shaw and Mola also participated with the Blaze. Some of these athletes are part of the school’s Best Buddies program.
Nick Rubino, a junior at Newtown High, spearheaded the efforts to get the basketball team off the ground for his Junior-Senior Project. He got the idea in his Fitness For Life class, taught by Physical Education Health Department Chair Kathy Davey, which gives students with special needs a chance to participate in a phys ed class with the help of their peers.
Rubino noted that it was rewarding to see the students develop and learn new activities and thought it would be great to expose them to an organized team environment. So, with the help of Newtown High Athletic Director Gregg Simon and special education teacher Jill Gonski, he created what became known as the Blue Blaze. The team practiced once each week for a month and a half.
At the end of the program, in the middle of March, team members got to participate in a tournament at Bunnell High School in Stratford, in which more than a dozen Unified Sports teams from the area came to play.
“It was just a special experience because some of the kids have never been able to be on a formal sports team,” Rubino said.
The Spirit Squad cheerleaders learned a variety of stunts, and joined the varsity girls at competitions where they had an opportunity to perform exhibition routines. They also went onto the court and tumbled and cheered with the varsity girls during halftime of some of the home basketball games throughout the season.
“It was so much fun. It brought our team closer together and it created a whole new team which was special,” Newtown High cheer captain Samantha Luzietti said.
Susan Bridges, coach of the cheerleaders, notes that the weekly practices were optional for team members and that “16 girls showed up for four months straight and didn’t miss a beat. We had a blast.”
Rubino is optimistic the Unified Sports program can grow and, eventually field teams for a variety of athletic activities, such as volleyball, soccer, and track and field. He’s hopeful it will also be offered for middle and elementary school students some day as well.
“This has been a great opportunity for them that they otherwise might not have,” Gonski notes.