RANDOLPH, NJ- In a tremendous display of support and enthusiasm, students with disabilities at RHS joined forces with varsity athletes to compete in this year’s NJSIAA Unified Basketball State Tournament, with the qualifying round held at West Morris High School on Saturday, February 23.
Students from the basketball, football, and track & field teams as well as some of their coaches joined the event to partner with the transition students. The outstanding support from general education students was so vast that some athletes who attended could not compete due to a maximum roster size of 18. This is the third year Randolph has participated in this tournament, however this year drew more attention and demonstrated the importance of inclusiveness in our schools.
“We aspire to include all students with disabilities and without disabilities through the Special Olympics, and we try to create a platform for awareness and acceptance for everybody and project unify allows us to do that,” said Transition Service Coordinator and Unified Sports coach, Brianne McBreen, as she strategized a game plan with her fellow coach, Rick Eva.
McBreen added, “It’s really important to have fun because unified sports is about being out there and enjoying the process not necessarily wins or losses, just learning. Every year is a new year, but its always an inclusive setting which stays consistent. This year we have a lot more interest from different stakeholders. We have a lot more support and our team is larger.”
18 schools throughout the state had entered into the tournament, half of them playing at West Morris to represent North Jersey. Event Organizer with the responsibility of the Unified Program, Al Stumpf, explained “This is the third year and every year it is growing, the first year we had two teams, last year we had three teams, this year we had 18 teams right now playing in South and North Jersey to determine brackets.” The team congregated into classrooms for players to mingle and bond before their first game against Union City.
After the team warmed up, the whistle blew and Ruya Dadkhah, Jeff Daza, Andrew Beideman, and their partners Alex Perniciaro and Tyler Ruscher take the court. As supporters cheered from the sidelines and coaches instructed, Randolph did an excellent job of swinging the ball across the court.
The bench jumped with excitement as transition student, Andrew, had made a critical layup that set them to win at half time. Then Jillian Mantell had run on the court in a burst of excitement and automatically attempted a shot. She proceeded to give her coaches a joyous thumbs-up, even though she had missed. Unfortunately, the game had ended in a Randolph loss of 9-15. With smiles and encouragement between players on the court, the team had not cared about the score, they had won from experience.
Transition student, Jeff Dazas, 19, had described the first game, “We had our ups and downs. Everyone on the team did really, really well and they put their heart out there and it was an amazing experience.”
Andrew Beideman added, “We lost the first game but we might win the second. The whole sport is great and I love playing because it’s a team effort.”
When the second game had kicked off against Millburn, there was an electric feeling on the bench. It had been different than the first game because the partners had bonded with the special needs students, cheering them on by name from the sidelines. This had truly showed the connection they had made by playing the sport together. After a slow start, #13, Michael McKenna, a transition student, had thrown up a freethrow that ended with the perfect swish. When Jillian Mantell had been substituted into the game, the bench was ecstatic. At the 14 minute mark with one to go, she made an important free throw that led to an ending score of 12-12.
Jillian recalled her shot as, “awesome and it was something I wanted to make!” I asked her to describe her day in one word and she casually broke the rules by saying, “super awesome”.
After watching the games, Junior Varsity Basketball coach, Jake Torsiello said, “What it really comes down to is as a basketball team we should be supporting basketball on every level, throughout every aspect of the school.”
Torsiello added, “It’s interesting that most of these players do not have the opportunity to interact with the partners in school, so this is great for them to get to know the different atmospheres found in the school system. Done through a common language of basketball which is really nice. And you can see the players are excited, the smiles on their faces and their happiness on the court, it’s a really enthusiastic environment, it’s a really supportive environment, and I think as students they will gain from this.”
Often, students with disabilities do not get a chance to play on their school sports teams. Team sports bring people together and this event did just that. About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with disabilities in a really fun way. The program empowers individuals with and without disabilities to interact through the power of sports which especially builds community in our schools. It is unknown which bracket the team is yet to be in, but both are set to play next weekend on March 2 at Hunderdon Central High School.
Editor's Note:Julia Haddock is a student at Randolph High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Randolph