FLEMINGTON, NJ - The sounds inside the Hunterdon Central field house on March 7 were no different than any other day when the Red Devils’ basketball teams play.
It was the sounds of dribbling basketballs, squeaking sneakers, the wail of a scoreboard buzzer and shrill of a referee’s whistle. There were the voices of young athletes in the spirit of competition.
On this particular afternoon, the field house played host to the first round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Unified Basketball Tournament.
Unified Sports is an inclusive, interscholastic athletic program based on the model pioneered by the Special Olympics. In June 2016, Special Olympics New Jersey signed a partnership with the NJSIAA to bring interscholastic Unified Sports programs to the state, and it’s been growing rapidly ever since.
The tournament hosted by Central started with just four schools four years ago, but has expanded to 14. There are more than 30 unified teams statewide, said NJSIAA assistant executive director Allan Stumpf, the former Voorhees High School athletic director.
“It’s designed to give students with intellectual disability the true high school experience,” said Stumpf, who supervises the program for the state association. “It breaks down barriers.”
Hunterdon Central started its program last year. Voorhees and Delaware Valley also have teams.
“I wish I could have started this 20 years ago, and I’ve been here for 20 years,” said Hunterdon Central coach Richard Monacchio, a child study team member and social worker at the school.
General education players are known as partners, and the special education students as athletes, Monacchio said. They all practice together.
If a team takes advantage of its general education players, supervisors like longtime official Charlie Zielinski politely reminds a coach the objective of it all – to play fair with a commitment to good sportsmanship.
“It’s awesome, it’s absolutely a great experience and wonderful to see the combined unified team,” said Monacchio.
“It’s wonderful to see the combined unified team with our general education kids and our special ed population,” said Moorestown High principal Drew Seibel.
The Hunterdon Central and Voorhees unified teams were both looking to advance in the tournament that was scheduled to end with the Unified title game at the Rutgers Athletic Center March 22 before the state association’s girls and boys Tournament of Champions finals. However, because of the coronavirus outbreak, all NJSIAA events were cancelled a couple weeks ago.
The disappointment of not continuing the tournament was obvious.
“These kids absolutely live for this,” said Monacchio. "If they could do it all year they would.”
Moorestown won the state championship two seasons ago. The state champs were chosen to play in the Special Olympics 2018 USA Games in Seattle, and won the gold medal.
Seibel has been among those at the forefront of the program that also includes soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter and track and field in the spring. Seibel said Moorestown has enough athletes to fill the rosters of three or four teams.
“We were looking for something to give our students with special needs an opportunity to be included with their peers, we trusted the system,” he said. “We have had tremendous support from the community.”
David Givler, a special education teacher at Mount Olive High School, was one of the certified officials that volunteered to work the games.
“This is so much fun, and it’s cool to see the helpers out there, (up to two general education partners can be on the court), working together and the joy the helpers have,” he said.
Hunterdon Central avenged two regular season losses to West Morris in the first round of the tournament.
“The kids rose to the occasion,” said Monacchio.
Central’s season was ended in the second round by Moorestown. Voorhees was beaten in the first round by Cherokee.