In first season, Cottonwood unified basketball brings inclusion, support for student-athletesMar 31, 2023 12:56PM ● By Julie Slama
Cottonwood High players give each other a high-5 five after playing Murray High at the regional tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
Cottonwood High sophomore Alizia Sherard was playing in her first unified basketball tournament.
As a new team to unified basketball, Sherard was excited, nervous and wanted to do her best.
“I was playing for my dad; he’s my hero,” she said, adding that she has practiced with him at home. “I like playing hoops with all the kids and making my shots. I was nervous at first, but when I’m on the floor, it feels like home so it’s just fun.”
It’s the first time she’s put on a jersey to represent Cottonwood.
“It feels good. I feel part of school,” she said.
Cottonwood players partnered with their peer tutors and other students to learn basketball basics—how to pass, how to defend, and when to shoot the ball, said paraeducator Libby Calton.
“Our goal is for them to learn, to work hard and mostly, to have fun,” she said. “This has been fun. It started with the parade of athletes; they thought that was so cool. Then, we’ve had some good games and people are here cheering for them. It’s been a great experience.”
In unified basketball, there are five players on a team—three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves. Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors.
UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.
“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.”
At the Feb. 27 regional tournament at Murray High, Cottonwood took second in its division.
In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—73 teams, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.
At both the regional and state tournament, administrators from school districts and educational foundations supported the student-athletes. They were joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, which was held at Weber State University.
Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.
“Utah, as a state—we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.
Unified sports engages students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.
“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on and off the court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”
Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.
“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”