Student-Athletes with and without disabilities from 17 schools converged on Hunterdon Central High School on Saturday, March 2, 2019 for the first official NJSIAA Unified Basketball playoff tournament.
These Unified teams are the first in New Jersey to represent their schools on the road to capturing the title of Unified Basketball State Champion. This is all possible because of the partnership between Special Olympics New Jersey and the NJSIAA which aims to bring Unified Sports competition into high school athletics. Special Olympics Unified Sports®, - brings together people of similar age, with and without intellectual disabilities, to play on the same team.
The unique aspect of the program is the way the student teammates work together as equals. A Unified athlete is defined as the team member who has an intellectual disability, and the Unified partner is the teammate without a disability. In basketball, the lineups consist of three athletes and two partners.
Following a season of league play, the teams came together at North and South sectional division rounds on February 23rd, where nine teams were placed the A division, and eight more in the B division.
The A bracket featured Trenton, Hunterdon Central, Ewing, Hamilton West, Union City, Moorestown, Randolph, Burlington City and Chatham.
The B bracket consisted of Old Bridge, Monroe, Voorhees, Steinert, Mendham, Ridge, Millburn and West Morris.
At conclusion of the day, Moorestown and Ewing emerged as finalists in the A division, and earned the right to play for the championship on March 17 at 12:30 p.m. at the Rutgers Athletic Center, prior to the girls and boys Tournament of Champions title games.
The B bracket was played to completion at Hunterdon Central, and Monroe won the championship by defeating West Morris in the final.
Participation in NJSIAA Unified Basketball has grown dramatically in just the past year. In 2018, only three teams competed in the state tournament, with Moorestown beating Union City on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the championship game on TOC finals day in Trenton. There was also a Unified Bowling championship held alongside the state finals last month, and Track and Field championships will be coming in the spring.
“This movement is growing a lot, and it’s really exciting,” said Kalee Iacoangeli, Sports Director for Special Olympics New Jersey. “This was fantastic. We saw teams of all different abilities from all different schools from all over the state and everybody played really well together. [IK2] Everyone played with the spirit of Unified Sports in mind. It was great.”
In Unified Sports, the athletes need to be able to perform the basketball fundamentals of the sport unassisted by others. Partners are considered an equal teammate to the Unified athlete. The partner is not there to serve as a coach or volunteer. They are there to compete as equal partners on the field of play.
Likewise, while varsity athletes can compete in Unified Sports, it has to be in a sport they are not a varsity athlete in or score on. participate in any sport they have lettered in.
All in all, it leads to expanded relationships between the students, and can even help the partner athletes if they plan on doing something like pursuing a career in a field like special education in college.
“It’s a great opportunity for the partners,” said Al Stumpf, the NJSIAA assistant director in charge of Unified Sports. “If they can’t make the time commitment for a varsity sport, or if they are interested in pursuing a career in this field, it gives them a terrific way to get involved.”
“The inclusion piece of it is what makes it so special,” Iacoangeli said. “It really is the goal of it at the core. The athletes benefit, the partners benefit, and it feeds off of each other. And it really is magical when it works well.”
To learn more about the NJSIAA Unified Sports Program, click here: