BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Playing sports at any level - club, intramural, or interscholastic - can be a key part of the school experience and have a lasting impact on a student's life. Phil Acosta, Columbia Middle School girls basketball coach, welcomed the opportunity for Marissa Fudenna to join and experience being part of the Columbia Tiger team.
Marissa, an eighth grader at Columbia Middle School, has always participated in sports. She competes in the Special Olympics NJ soccer program as well as the High Expectations, Inc. basketball program, playing in games every Sunday.
"There was never a question of how it was going to go, it was going to be fun," said Acosta, who is a Transition Teacher at Governor Livingston High School and works with special education students.
"This is a nice connection that she has with the school outside of Special Olympics. It gives her a connection to the school and the girls," said Acosta.
While Middle School Sports remain highly competitive, Acosta doesn't treat Marissa any differently. Rules don't change, Marissa works hard to earn her time on the court. Participation at any level is beneficial. Playing time an added benefit.
"I try to treat her just like any other kid on the team. I want her to feel like she doesn't get any special treatment from me," said Acosta. "I hold her to the same expectations that all of the girls have. The girls on the team see that as well."
Marissa is a very capable dedicated player. "Running a play or doing a drill, if I break it down and go through it step by step, she's fine. She knows what she's doing," said Acosta.
Her commitment to the team is one of the best on the team. She is the very first one out to practice, always the first to shoot and ready to go. "She always gets to practice with a smile on her face - that's what I like," said Acosta.
Marissa sits right by the coach during games. "There was a game a few back, the play went back and forth and we lost by one basket in double overtime," recounted Acosta. "I said out loud that we just need that one basket. And Marisa said, 'Coach, I can give you the two points you need.'" Marissa is always eager to get in to contribute.
In a competitive program, Coach Acosta plays to win and expects no leniency towards Marissa from referees or opponents.
Acosta recalls Marissa's first score of the season,"Marissa made the move, dribbled through the paint, like I teach them - she shot with her left hand and made it. So proud of her," he said. "She took pride in it because she earned it."