Philomath’s Unified basketball program hosts its first tournament
Each time a player scores, cheers can be heard from both benches, the crowd, everywhere — it doesn’t matter which uniform the athlete happens to be wearing.
Halfway through the quarter, a new wave of players enter the game to make sure everybody gets equal playing time. And then there are the high-fives, the smiles, the body language that exhibits enthusiasm. Sure, they’re having fun but don’t be fooled — most of these athletes also possess a competitive spirit and want to win.
It’s Unified basketball and for the first time ever on Saturday, Philomath High School hosted a tournament.
The Philomath squad features a roster of 12 — six with intellectual disabilities (Unified athletes) and six without intellectual disabilities (Unified partners). The primary objective of the activity is to connect those two segments of the student body.
“I think it’s just a fun sport to hang out with friends and play around,” 18-year-old Unified athlete Kyron Amerling said. “Just have fun.”
Saff Evans, Life Skills instructor, established a Unified team at PHS during the 2014-15 school year, although she’s been involved with the organization further back going on 10 years now.
“We always have a lot of fun,” said Kathy Bauer, who serves as the head coach. “We cheer for both sides and you know, we’re not paying a whole lot of attention to the score. But we do practice and we do try our best to win.”
In games, the five-player lineup on the floor includes three Unified athletes and two Unified student partners.
“The partners help get the ball down and there to help pass and stuff but our partners never shoot,” explained Bauer, who is in her second year of coaching. “They’re there to help with rebounds and guard a little bit.”
Under Unified’s official rules, the partner athletes are allowed to shoot, Evans said, but they don’t at this level.
“If you get to the higher levels … they’re all equal on that team,” Evans said. “We don’t have that skill level — we have a couple of kids that could probably play on a team like that but we have others that are not quite there and you can’t run a play because they get too flustered or things like that or they get scared.
“We want it to be fun for all of them so at our level, it’s like, ‘hey, your job is to rebound and get it to our players — those kinds of things — and we do the same for the other team. … So it kind of equals out.”
Bauer, Evans and Darci Garwood all help with coaching.
Joining Philomath at the tournament on Saturday were Corvallis, Lebanon, Newport and Sutherlin.
Nationally, the concept behind Unified sports dates back to the mid-1980s with the principle that training together and playing together provides a quick path to friendship and understanding for athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.
Besides basketball, Special Olympics Oregon lists other sports as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, track and field, bocce, golf and softball in the summer, and aquatics, soccer and volleyball in the fall.
Amerling, a senior who has also been involved with Unified bowling and weightlifting, said he enjoys scoring and rebounding most while on the court and he has some size to help with those endeavors.
“I play against people my own size, too, but yeah, I’m pretty good,” he said. “Honestly, I mostly get rebounds.”
Amerling obviously has a love for sports.
“I’ve played here and there before my accident and I’ve been a huge baseball fan all of my life,” Amerling said. “So I’ve been mostly playing baseball, then I realized I couldn’t play baseball anymore so I just started to play basketball.”
Other Unified athletes on the team are junior Jasmin Eck, freshman Shyann Eck, senior Justin Garcia, senior-plus Kelsey Manley and sophomore Logan Riddle.
Brooke Moade, a junior who serves as a student manager with the PHS girls basketball program, played in her first game with the Unified team on a trip to South Albany.
“She absolutely loved it, she was hooked,” Bauer laughed.
Moade talks with excitement about the activity.
“It is so fun because you’re not only playing a sport that I really enjoy like basketball but you’re playing it with the most fun kids,” Moade said. “They are all so happy to be here and they’re happy to be playing basketball and having fun in a lovely environment for everybody.”
Other Unified partners on the squad are sophomore Caleb Garcia, sophomore Case Hoch, senior Laci Manley, junior Madison Parker and senior Isaac Workman.
The annual Polar Plunge, an activity that’s coming up Feb. 19 in Corvallis, serves as the primary fundraiser for the Unified basketball team. Unlike past years, 100% of the money raised will go directly to the program. Students from the high school’s Associated Student Body organization are heading up the effort.
Bauer said she’s seen good support from the community. The Unified team played a home game a couple of weeks ago against Lebanon.
“Our principal had us make T-shirts for all of the staff that we wore on Friday before the game,” Bauer said. “There were quite a few people involved, a couple of teachers that were announcers and one was keeping score for us and we had the dance team there.”
Evans sees good interest from students who want to get into the program as partners.
“It just takes them to come to a game and see what it’s about before they get really feisty and fired up for it,” Evans said. “Even the staff are like that — we’ve had a couple of staff people come in and say, ‘hey, that was so much fun.’”
Heading into Saturday’s tournament, Evans talked with enthusiasm about how everything was coming together.
“I’m excited because we can have it here and parents can come and our kids are volunteering left and right,” Evans said. “They’re covering all the tables and the clocks and they’re working in the concession booths and we’ve got three kids that are going to be greeters to the teams coming in and showing them where to go — they’re assigned to each team and if they need anything, they just go to them. So they’re all excited.”
Moade sess the same level of interest.
“Our student body understands how important it is for the kids playing, so I think they do a really good job of coming out and showing up,” Moade said. “Our teachers, especially, do a really good job of promoting it … they really hype it up.”
Before the pandemic, the Unified team had a structured schedule through Special Olympics but since COVID entered the picture, schools were free to organize their own games. The idea to host a tournament took hold.
The Philomath appearance might be the last of the season.
“We thought we were going to play in one more tournament, but I think they’re getting caught with COVID and they’re not sure if they’re going to be able to pull it off,” Evans said. “So this might be it.”