Moorestown High School’s Unified Basketball team defeated Team Ohio, 27-18, to take the national championship in Seattle, Washington last July. Competing as Team New Jersey in Unified Basketball Division 3, the Quakers previously beat New York and Washington to take the title.
More than 4,000 athletes and coaches from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., competed in 14 sports in Seattle at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. The games take place every four years. The 2014 games hosted closer to home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Moorestown Education Association members Mikal Lundy and Brittany Shields were the team’s coaches along with Moorestown High School Principal Andrew Seibel. Seibel and Director of Special Education David Tate were the driving force behind bringing the Special Olympics Play Unified program to Moorestown. Lundy is a business and finance teacher at Moorestown High School. Shields is a special education teacher in a multiple disabilities program at the school.
Lundy marveled at the students’ enthusiasm the day of the championship game. He recalled making his way through the students’ dorm rooms prior to the game to make sure they were awake and ready to go. He found at least one student who woke up two hours early to prepare himself.
“He had his Bible in his hand and Christian rock music blaring in his room, and I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’” Lundy recalled. “He said, ‘I’m getting right for the game!’ This game meant the world to him.”
Shields and Lundy agree that while everyone is proud to have won, the impact of the games extends far beyond wins and losses. Shields described the games in Seattle as the “happiest place on earth.”
“Everyone was equal at the U.S. games, and everything bad that was happening around the world didn’t exist during our time at the University of Washington,” Shields said. “All of the athletes and partners were honored to be there to play and support one another.”
In addition to the games themselves, socializing among the athletes was encouraged. Every athlete made it their goal to collect pins from the athletes representing the other 49 states and Washington, D.C.
“This may seem easy, but for some it is hard to greet others and ask to exchange pins,” Shields said. “I was impressed with the amount of socialization, and friendly faces around campus. The memories from that week will stay with the players and coaches forever.”
While the Special Olympics games in Seattle required the competing athletes with disabilities to be independent on the field or court during completions, back home in New Jersey, the Moorestown students participate in the Play Unified sports program. Special Olympics New Jersey and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NSIAA) have partnered to expand opportunities for students throughout the state to participate in the program.
Unified teams include students with disabilities, sometimes referred to as “athletes,” and students without disabilities, sometimes referred to as “partners.” Moorestown was an early participant in fielding interscholastic Play Unified teams, initiating soccer and basketball teams in September of 2016. Moorestown expanded the program to include bowling and track and field during the 2017-18 school year. Under Play Unified rules for basketball, there are three athletes on the court for every two partners at any point during the game.
Special Olympics New Jersey’s Unified Cup School Championships Tournaments (formerly called the Shriver Cup) bring together schools from around New Jersey to offer a state-level competition to Unified Sports programs. Following a successful Unified Cup School Championships performance in 2017, where the Quakers’ Unified Basketball Team won the Gold Medal in the high school competitive division, the team was invited to participate in the Team New Jersey tryouts for the 2018 USA Games, leading to their championship win in Seattle.
A trip to Seattle and the national title have increased what was already a high student interest in the Play Unified program at Moorestown. Lundy said that word of mouth among students is important.
“Once the kids do it, they’re hooked,” Lundy said. “They end up saying it’s the most fun they’ve ever had.”
Shields said that interactions among students, regardless of disability, have increase in the halls and classrooms of Moorestown High School.
“Everyone feels more comfortable holding conversations or saying ‘Hi’ to one another in settings other than the playing field,” she said. “The partners that sign up for Play Unified have taken these experiences to college with them. A student that graduated last year is already trying to create a unified program at his college in Ohio.”
Lundy noted that Unified Sports deepens students’ understanding of each other.
“A lot of people have difficulty relating to people with special needs,” Lundy said. “But when you get out on the court or step out onto the field and you interact with them on a daily basis, you start to understand that they are people just like you and me. The want to have fun. They’re going to have their ups and downs. They just want to have that high school experience like everyone else.”
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