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The Unified Sports program at Newtown High School is more about participants having opportunities than about wins and losses, but the doors that open through the program make for quite a winning formula in the end.
Newtown High’s Blue Blaze basketball team has been practicing and competing in games and multi-school tournaments throughout the winter. The program makes for a unique learning experience for the special needs athletes who have an opportunity to play a team sport as well as the student partners who assist them.
“After they make a shot, how big their smiles are — that’s probably the best part,” said partner Robbie Morrill, one of the many who got involved in the program following in the footsteps of a relative; his sister Ali Morrill is a former Unified Sports participant.
“I feel like by the end of the season we’re like one big family,” said Ashlyn DeLoughy, a partner and NHS senior who is in her third year working with special needs athletes.
Ashlyn and Robbie are among the student leaders of the program.
Ashlyn first got involved after hearing such good things about the program from her cousin and former NHS Unified Sports partner Kira Flynn.
Robbie has long had an interest in special needs activities; his parents are both special education teachers.
The athletes all take home exposure to competitive sports-playing opportunities they otherwise would not have and, more importantly, have an outlet to interact with their peers in a social setting.
The partners, some of whom play varsity sports, get a lesson in leadership and a seemingly unmatched level of sportsmanship.
Not only do they help the student-athletes from their school, but also assist opposing players. Emphasis is put on all participants being involved and scoring baskets. Lower baskets are used for players in wheelchairs.
“I think one of the biggest things we’ve learned as a group is how to lead and manage such a big team,” said Ashlyn, alluding to the growing Newtown programthat has so many participants — 50-plus combined athletes and partners — that there are as many as three Blue Blaze squads playing games at once in tournaments.
“We all do this for the same reason,” said Kathy Davey, Unified Sports advisor and coach. “We’re making the world a better place.”
“I think it’s really a win-win for everyone that’s involved,” NHS Athletic Director Matt Memoli said. “The program that Kathy’s developed is amazing in every sense. This is what it’s all about: people helping people.”
Gregg Simon, former longtime NHS athletic director and now the associate executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, attends sporting events, including Unified games.
Something Mr Simon notices is that Unified Sports creates long-lasting bonds.
“Some of the former players come back to cheer on their former teammates. That’s pretty cool to see,” said Mr Simon, adding that the work Ms Davey has done throughout the years to grow Newtown’s program is admirable.
“I really don’t think there are any words to describe it,” Ms Davey said of Unified Sports, and what it means to those involved. “Family. That would be the one word to describe Unified Sports. They’re all connected and they all stay connected. They may go away to college but they come back.”
Ms Davey said the opportunities the program creates are part of what she enjoys most about Unified Sports.
“Everybody succeeds. You don’t think you’re going to be able to do it and then you do it,” she said of athletes learning skills in weekly practices and applying them in drills and games.
It takes positive attitudes on the part of partners and athletes alike for the program to be so enjoyable, Ms Davey said.
“When somebody’s positive, everybody wants to be a part of it. Everybody feeds off one another,” Ms Davey said.
At the conclusion of a tournament at NYA Sports & Fitness this season, Ms Davey was honored by Carolyn DaSilva, senior manager of the Hometown Foundation, which supports community needs and is the largest sponsor of Unified Sports in the state.
Ms DaSilva is a former field hockey player under the direction of Ms Davey, who coached at Watertown High.
Ms Davey spearheaded a swimming activity as part of Hometown’s Dream Ride Experience, an event to benefit Special Olympics, under which Unified Sports falls. Ms DaSilva spoke to the Unified team members and parents on hand at the tourney about Ms Davey’s dedication.
“It’s nice to be able to honor your mentor,” Ms DaSilva said.
Newtown High Unified Sports Blue Blaze partners and players are as follows: Payton Bradley, Riley Burns, Jordan D’Amico, Andrew Kugler, Zachary Kugler, Hope Moyer, Abigail Poseno, Cameron Powers, Jenna Reilly, Timmy Vigneau, Jessica Andreotta, Bryan Bailey, Steven Cheh, Kiernan Coffey, David Croteau, Miles Dievert, JP Ford, Abigail Grenier, Patrick Grover, Sydney Howard, Kelly MacLeod, Taylor McPadden, Faith O’Hara, Lianna Perazzo, Maddie Rose, Ben Selner, Olivia Steare, Matt Vigneau, Gabby Calbo, Kai-li Davey, Logan Flynn, Brianna Linden, Eric Moore, Robbie Morrill, Will Pelisson, James Schumacher, Sophia Spraggns, Jack Sullivan, Jesse Viesto, Jordan Cicchesi, Silas Decker, Ashlyn DeLoughy, Rebecca DiDomizio, Jackie Magoon, Johnny Nowacki, Timmy Rogers, Brian Smith, Rachel Tomasino, Joshua Bailey, Garrett Fitzpatrick, Andrew Hsieh, Danielle Mola, and Nick Rose.