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Sandy Journal

Unified basketball brings skills, inclusion, friendship to Jordan’s, Alta’s teams

Mar 31, 2023 10:54AM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High’s unified basketball team shoots for two at the regional tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Jordan High sophomore Tegan Mast is playing on unified basketball for her second year and was getting ready to compete at a regional tournament in early March.

“I like playing ball with everyone,” said the student-athlete. “We play twice each week and have a lot of fun.”

Mast’s teammate and senior class president Cameryn Coffey has played alongside her both years.

“I like how unified sports brings everyone together, not necessarily to win, but to be united,” she said. “It’s also fun that the tournament is held during inclusion week. We’ve been doing all sorts of activities at lunch from having pancakes to face painting so everyone can participate and have fun.”

In unified basketball, there are five players on the court — 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.” 

Alta High Principal Ken Rowley, who was watching the Hawks, agrees. 

“What an amazing experience to see our Special Olympic athletes from Alta High School learning life lessons with other Special Olympian’s from across the Salt Lake Valley,” he said. “The look of sheer joy on their face as they or a friend scored a basket. It made my heart smile as I experienced this for the first time. This is something that Alta High School will be a part of for years to come.” 

Rowley said unified sports ties to Alta’s theme of the year, “better together.” Alta’s inclusion week celebrated students’ differences, which included highlighting different cultures as well. 

“Our differences can and do make us stronger. We also gained a greater appreciation for each other and celebrated the uniqueness of each individual in our community,” he said.

Canyons Education Foundation Officer Denise Haycock helped at the regional tournament and appreciated the partnerships between Jordan and Canyons foundations and the support of sponsors, including Scheels in providing equipment for the unified athletes.

When the regional tournament ended, the two Jordan High teams both came in second in their respective divisions while Alta took fourth 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 competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.

At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, there was plenty of smiles and cheers as the Jordan Beetdiggers brought home a bronze medal in its division. Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the competition, 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.”