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West Valley City Journal

First state unified basketball tournament provides inclusion, medals for Skyline team

Aug 07, 2022 08:56PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At the first unified coed basketball state tournament, one of Skyline High’s teams brought home second-place medals and the other, seventh-place ribbons in their divisions. Hunter High wore second-place medals home as well.

But it meant more than that.

It was an opportunity for inclusion, partnership and belonging, said First Lady Abby Cox, who supports unified sports through her Show Up initiative.

“Every student has a chance to be included and every student gets the chance to compete,” she said at the opening ceremony of the state unified basketball tournament where 32 teams played against—and sometimes, played together—for a chance to represent their team and school for a ribbon or medal.

“Everyone shares the ball in unified sports,” Hunter coach Ashley Ellis said. “Teams rebounded and gave the ball back to the opposing teams because they wanted them to make a basket, it’s just fun to watch.”

That was the camaraderie and spirit of the tournament, which included athletes from 25 high schools running through a gauntlet of Utah Jazz and Weber State cheer squads and professional teams’ mascots, all there to support unified sports. 

It is the first high school state tournament, said Unified Champion Schools manager Courtnie Worthen, since during pre-COVID-19 years, the tournament was held for community teams vying for the state title. The 2020 tournament, which was planned to be a statewide event, was canceled because of the pandemic, and last year, regional competitions were held to reduce the numbers and possible spread of the pandemic.

Worthen said after the statewide soccer tournament last fall, which was held at Rio Tinto stadium and had the support of Real Salt Lake, interest in unified sports grew.

“A lot of it was thanks to the First Lady’s initiative, Show Up,” she said. “More schools started to see what unified sports could be and wanted to be a part of it, so we saw a lot of growth. This was an incredible event.”

That included eight of the nine high schools in Davis School District competing as well as Jordan Education Foundation pledging to support 10 new teams. Wasatch High’s team will even represent Utah at the national Special Olympics games.

Since Worthen began overseeing unified sports four years ago, the competition has doubled from 22 to 50 teams involved in soccer, basketball and track.

“A coach told me that this whole week they have seen inclusion, that their students have made friends with unified partners and even students who weren’t participating. They talk to each other and the students on the unified team feel like they’re a part of the school for the first time,” she said.

It’s not just high schools. Worthen said that by the end of the school year, unified sports activities will have quadrupled in the past year, bringing participation up to 160 elementary and secondary schools. In May, unified golf will be introduced at the middle school level.

Unified sports also gained the community’s support.

The basketball tournament, which was supported by the Utah Jazz, had four sections: two developmental and two competitive divisions. The winners of each division were recognized at the Utah Jazz game April 6, where a highlight reel of the tournament was shown.

However, the focus at the tournament was on basketball. A maximum of two partners or peer students could be on the floor with its athletes, or special needs players; the rest of the team regularly rotating in and cheering for both teams on the sidelines. Several schools had banners and families and friends cheering.

And in Hunter’s case, they made friends with their opponents, Bingham High.

“We beat Bingham and then the next game, Bingham cheered for Hunter and so then, Hunter cheered for them,” Ellis said. “It was really cool to see how quickly that bond took place and those friendships that can be made.”

Hunter’s journey to a second-place finish in its division for its four athletes and five partners was a challenge. In the school’s second game of the tournament against Mountain Crest High, the score was still tied after double overtime, so it went to sudden death; the first team that scored won.

“It was scary, but we got it. We pulled through. Then we went onto the championship game,” she said. 

Next year, Ellis hopes to have two teams competing and to build up unified basketball at Hunter by having an exhibition game during halftime of one of the high school games.

“There were a lot more fans there, which made it fun,” she said. “My favorite part is just the celebrations that take place after a basket is scored. Everyone is just so excited for each other; they take the time to give each other a high-five or double high-five.”

Skyline coach Kelsee Kellogg said that after unified soccer, her team was excited for its first season of unified basketball.

“We’d hang out at lunch, then on Fridays play knockout or lightning types of basketball games” until practices began and they’d teach their 25 team members how to dribble, shoot and pass, she said.

Kellogg split the team in half. One team finished second at both region and state and other team took fourth at region and seventh at state in its division.

“They loved the crowd, having people watching them. They realized everybody wants to play and have a chance to make a basket. So, when we’re on the opponents’ basket, they’ll rebound and give it back to the shooters and say, ‘Here, try again.’ They’ll do it until they make it. I didn’t teach them that; it was all them. That’s who they are,” Kellogg said, adding that parents who came to support Skyline also cheered for the opposing team when they made a basket.

It was those little moments that stuck in Kellogg’s memory. Like when a girl on the opposing team needed encouragement to shoot, they cheered for her, and she made the basket.

“In the end, she came up and hugged me. That was awesome,” she said. “It was just fun to sit down and eat lunch with my team at the state tournament. They’re like, ‘Do you want to trade me this for your fruit snack?’ They were just there having fun and that’s what it’s all about.”