The matches are usually played on Wednesday or Thursdays, much in the same way that high school football games are regularly played on Fridays. The uniforms the athletes wear display the names of high schools around the state.
Officials are brought in. Fans sit in the stands. The playoffs are scheduled to start this weekend.
The sport is unified volleyball, but it might as well be any of the other eight sports offered by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League (RIIL).
Now in its third full season, unified volleyball is a program that has formed thanks to a partnership between the RIIL and the Rhode Island chapter of the Special Olympics, funded through a federal grant from Special Olympics International. It pairs students with special needs with other students to create a team and provide a competitive, athletic opportunity.
And its weekly matches are as recognized by the governing body of Rhode Island high school sports as this past Friday’s football games.
“For the first time in years, our athletes are finally wearing their school colors,” said Denny DeJesus, executive director of Special Olympics Rhode Island. “Going through the corridors and getting high fives from their classmates, I think they feel more like a part of their school community now.”
More and more schools are embracing the idea, as volleyball has grown from eight to 12 to 14 teams this season, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Both Hendricken and Pilgrim have teams in Warwick, and the sport is becoming mainstream around the country. Early this past summer, a unified volleyball national championship tournament was held in Salt Lake City, Utah.
East Greenwich won the entire thing.
“We’re just thrilled with how much the program has grown and developed,” DeJesus said. “The response that we get from the local high schools has been phenomenal. It’s working. I think it’s changing the culture in our schools. I think more and more students, faculty and staff are learning more about the gifts that people with intellectual disabilities have.”
The unified volleyball program is actually the second unified sport put in place in Rhode Island, as unified basketball is set to begin its fourth season this winter.
That sport has grown at an even higher rate. In 2010, it debuted with 10 teams. When the season begins in 2013, that total will be all the way up to 28. Toll Gate, Pilgrim, Warwick Vets and Hendricken all have unified basketball teams.
“That just gives you an idea of the popularity and the acceptance of the program in our school communities,” DeJesus said.
But volleyball isn’t too far behind. This past Thursday, Hendricken traveled to Cranston West for one of the final regular season matches for both teams.
The Hawks won two games to one, but no one seemed all that concerned with the score at the end of the day.
Everyone was excited to be on the court.
“It’s been a great experience,” Hendricken head coach Tim Deely said. “Seeing the athletes have a good time, and the mentors mixing in very well, it’s been a great experience for me. I know the athletes are having a great time.”
Of course, the unified program wouldn’t be possible without an outpouring of support from fans and schools, both of which have come in spades.
On Thursday, Hendricken had multiple fans make the trip to Cranston to support the team on the road.
That’s been more the norm than the exception, just about everywhere. At West, a pep rally was held during the school day on Thursday, to show support for all the team’s athletic programs.
The unified team received one of the best ovations of the day.
“Especially today at the pep rally, they gave us a good round of applause,” said Cranston West senior James Weaver, a standout on the Falcons’ varsity basketball team who also serves as a partner on the unified volleyball team. “They called out each team – soccer, unified volleyball – and we came out first and they gave us a big ovation.”
That’s a reflection of what West head coach Matt Reis has seen every year he’s been coaching. He’s had as many as 60 people sign up for the basketball team – which he also coaches – and he had nearly 40 sign up for this year’s volleyball team.
He gives preference to seniors, and then operates primarily on a first-come, first-serve basis after that, but the sheer number of sign-ups speaks to the growth and legitimacy of the program as a whole.
“They all love it,” Reis said. “One thing that I can say about the program is that I’ve never had anybody that’s played and not had a good time, or it’s not a worthwhile experience for them.”
Teams typically practice once or twice a week, and Bryant University held clinics prior to this season to help provide some extra coaching.
Everybody works together to try to get all the athletes involved. That means regular substitutions, a de-emphasizing of spiking and a focus on spreading the ball around the court.
“I just wanted to help kids who didn’t have the same opportunity that I had, to play on higher levels,” Weaver said. “It’s a good opportunity.”
The regular season ends this week, with playoffs beginning over the weekend and culminating with the state finals on Nov. 3.
All the teams qualify for the postseason initially, and they are then re-seeded into Division I, Division II and Division II tournaments.
Three teams end up as champions. Woonsocket, Barrington and Smithfield all claimed titles last season.
And while that’s certainly an added incentive for everybody, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s about plenty more than winning.
“It’s been a great time,” Deely said. “The bus rides to and from the games, it’s good team spirit. The kids are joking about different things.”
As the unified program continues to pick up speed, DeJesus and Special Olympics Rhode Island are always looking for ways to foster that growth.
Last year, a unified basketball program was started at the middle school level, at places like Park View Middle School in Cranston and Cole Middle School in East Greenwich. Six schools ended up joining in for the inaugural season.
So far, that too has received nothing but positive reviews.
Essentially, the program itself – whether at the high school or middle school level – has been everything anyone could have hoped for.
“Whenever I go out to a game, I’m amazed at the fan support, the excitement that the players have,” DeJesus said. “The impact is not only on the athletes, but on the partners and the coaches and the whole school community. It’s a home run for everyone.”
The next step, potentially, is to expand beyond basketball and volleyball.
“I also see us taking a look at the possibility of other sports,” DeJesus said. “I’m not ready to commit to anything right now, but there is certainly room to grow. There’s room for any new ideas that come before us.”
In the meantime, it’s almost playoff time in the volleyball season, and basketball season is right around the corner.
Unified sports are in full swing.
“It really doesn’t matter how strong you are at volleyball,” Reis said. “As long as everyone is participating equally, and having fun, that’s kind of the goal.”