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Basketball team unites students, promotes inclusion

Multiple districts adding Unified Sports teams, school activities

Wyoming — You could call Wyoming High School senior Sam Solis the hype man on his Unified Sports basketball team.

“This is our time. You all got this,” he said, recalling the words he used to motivate his teammates before a March basketball tournament. “Don’t ever be afraid to run and shoot the ball. If you run to the hoop, we are all by your side. We are running with you. Don’t even hesitate to shoot the ball!”

Then the team of nine Special Olympics athletes and seven mentors chanted in unison: “1-2-3 Family! 4-5-6 Wolves!”

Sam, a senior, and Keegan Harper, a freshman, shared highlights of the action-packed Unified Sports tournament they played in March against Kenowa Hills, Hudsonville and Sparta. 

“We ended up winning three games in a row. I was pretty proud of all of us,” Sam said.

“It was amazing,” said Keegan. “It was a really fun experience to play basketball against other teams and learn new skills and be able to see what my actual talent was on the inside.”

Inclusion through Basketball

Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. The Wyoming athletes and mentors including Keegan, Sam, fellow seniors Gage Behrenbrinker and Buster Cross, and junior Haidyn Ager, played together in the tournament following several weeks of practice. Students knew one another from the class’s Peer-to-Peer Mentoring, which pairs students in general education with students in special education. 

“It was cool to build relationships with them,” Haidyn said. “I learned how important it is to make them feel like they are part of a team.”

English teacher Joslyn O’Dell and special education teacher Anna Servo-Christiaans started the team this year after O’Dell watched a Unified Sports basketball team play in Grandville and knew she wanted to start one at Wyoming. 

Unified Sports teams include basketball, soccer,  bocce,  bowling, and track and field, and many local schools and grade levels play a sport or combination of them including inByron Center, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Caldeonia, Cedar Springs, Northview, Forest Hills, Grandville, Kenowa Hills and Sparta.

It’s jump ball time

During games, three athletes and two mentors play at a time on each team, rotating groups of teammates every few minutes. 

“It’s so nice because there’s such a bond that they build,” O’Dell said. “There are sometimes opportunities on the court where they have to help redirect or give opportunities to other students.”

One goal during the March event was to make sure every player had at least one shot at the basket, and that everyone scored at least once. 

Sharing Their Expertise

Gage and Buster play on the Wyoming Wolves varsity basketball team. Joining Unified, they said, was a perfect way to share their skills.

“It’s a cool opportunity that I knew I wanted to take advantage of,” Buster said. “The kids were really excited (and) looking forward to this. That made me excited as a mentor to them. You can play with them in gym class, but it’s different going in front of a crowd and letting them have the ability to play and go against different schools. And I got to hang out with Keegan.”

“I learned how competitive these kids are when you bring it out of them,” added Gage. “They are super energetic.”

This is what a Unified team looks like

Keegan said he enjoyed learning from the mentors.

“The way I played changed as soon as I got on this team. The experienced players helped me out real well. I’m glad they were there,” he said.

People who have disabilities don’t always have the opportunity to play on a team, Keegan said.

“We are trying to change that and include everybody. It doesn’t matter who they are … I was impressed with everybody for their teamwork and doing their best.”

Read more from Wyoming: 
Basketball coach’s legacy spans four decades, 400 career wins
A plan for positivity: This senior is sharing the love

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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