Warwick Vets has had a unified basketball program since 2011, but until Wednesday, Vets had never hosted a game during the school day.
It was worth the wait.
With fellow students packing the bleachers and circling the court, the Vets unified team welcomed in Toll Gate for the season opener on Wednesday morning. Between the raucous cheering, the performances by the band and the cheerleaders and a victory for Vets, it was quite a day.
“It was a lot of work to go into it, but it was definitely amazing,” said Vets coach Katie Thomas. “We had the mayor here, the superintendent. We had the support of the students, the band, the cheerleaders. This is the first time we’ve had a unified game during the school day. It’s just awesome.”
Unified basketball is a joint effort of Special Olympics Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. It puts students with developmental disabilities together with student partners on the same team for a full season of action. The program is in its fourth year, and 30 teams are participating this spring, a new high-water mark.
Most games are played after school, but several teams around the state have come up with the idea of holding one special game per year during the school day, with students and faculty there to cheer them on.
Vets jumped on board this year.
“The kids have been talking about it for weeks,” said Vets principal Gerry Habershaw. “They couldn’t wait.”
As the day approached, there were some nerves, but eventually, everyone embraced the moment.
“Yesterday at practice, they were so nervous,” Thomas said. “Two had twisted ankles and belly-aches, but when we really told them it was just for fun, they were pumped. It was awesome.”
When the Vets and Toll Gate players arrived in the gym on Wednesday morning, they got a hint of how special it would be. Signs saluting the unified team adorned the walls, and streamers hung from the ceiling. The band was warming up and the cheerleaders were ready to go. Mayor Scott Avedisian arrived. Students and faculty began trickling in.
By game time, it was standing room only. Athletic director Ken Rix introduced the players on each team, with several Vets fan favorites drawing huge rounds of applause.
“The entire school, I think, really appreciates the effort they put in,” Habershaw said.
After the Vets chorus sang the national anthem, the teams were off-and-running. Cheers rang out whenever either team made a basket, and the smiles of the players showed how much it meant.
“It was so great to have the opportunity,” Thomas said.
The teams were tied at halftime. In the second half, they went back and forth and Vets trailed by two in the late going. A bucket by Courtney Brunelle forced overtime.
Toll Gate’s Katie Branca gave the Titans a lead in the extra period, but Vets tied it in the final seconds, forcing a second overtime.
In this one, Vets caught fire. Becca Seamans scored on a putback and Zach Farrow hit a short jumper in the lane to make it 36-32. Seamans put the finishing touches on the 38-32 victory with another basket.
“Win or lose, the unified spirit is to have fun,” Thomas said. “Our kids definitely got the unified spirit. I’m so proud of them today.”
The game was also a unique event for Toll Gate and for the students in the stands.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Habershaw said. “I think it creates a lot of awareness.”
Vets team members are Cory Kershner, Courtney Brunelle, Zach Farrow, Nick Thompson, Kevin Amaral, Sean Suzadelis, Colin Lemire, Becca Seamans, Cory Ware, Casey Mooney, Oliver Pinheiro, Jess Yuettner, Reyna Amat, Bill Burr, Henri Guiot, Anthony Parisi, Steve Awde and Raul Pacheco. The team is coached by Thomas, Chris Bedard and Sarah Amato.
The Toll Gate team is comprised of Katie Branca, Lizzie Johnson, Kellan Moran, Destiny Murray, Danielle Roberts, Justin Gorman, Jordan Barros, Sean Iacobbo, Malique Woods, Kelsey Kurbied, Meghan Senerchia, Fez Siddiaqi and Emily Morris. Coaches are Marita Rachiele and Kaitlyn Rachiele.