More than 100 students, teachers, and parents filled a set of bleachers inside the Waltham High gymnasium as Waltham’s cheerleaders celebrated each and every basket for both the Hawks and visiting Newton South.
A varsity basketball game between the Dual County League rivals is typically a tense showdown with emotions running high, but on this day it was a salute to a collective spirit as the unified basketball teams from the schools put on a show on the Cohn Gymnasium hardwood.
“It’s kind of cool,” said Waltham sophomore and unified player Tony Alonso. “It makes you kind of nervous [having so many people cheering]. But I like to have fun with the other players.”
The Oct. 29 game was the final of five contests for Waltham in its first season with a unified team, in which players with intellectual and physical challenges share the court on co-ed teams. In the span of two years, the number of unified basketball teams in the state has jumped from 25 to 80, with Waltham putting one together after a group of coaches and students learned about the program at an MIAA Leadership Summit last school year.
“I was sitting there with some of the athletes and they were saying, ‘This is going to be awesome. We have to do this,’ ” said Waltham field hockey coach Denise Nugent. “We wanted to come back from the summit with something we could focus on. There were many things we could have done. But they all really wanted this.”
Waltham coaches, administrators, and student-athletes had several meetings in Waltham girls’ soccer coach Sydney Lindstrom’s classroom about developing a unified team last winter. In March, they hosted a unified bocce tournament that convinced them to push forward for a basketball team this fall.
“The kids were all asking us: ‘Can we walk out [at the pep rally] at Homecoming? Do we get uniforms? Do we get to go on the bus trips?’ ” Lindstrom said of the unified players. “Because of their excitement, we decided this had to happen.”
Waltham has 15 players for its first basketball team this fall, while Newton South has a roster of 36. Newton South started a unified track team two years ago as one of the first schools in the state to embrace the concept.
The growth has “been very encouraging,” said Alex Strongin, a Newton South special education teacher who organizes the basketball team along with South softball coach Jesus Rodriguez. “Many people have asked us how we got so many kids on the team. For whatever reason, Newton has really taken to the sport. They really see the value in it. Not just the kids with disabilities, but the kids without disabilities as well. They all gain something from it.”
Peter Smith, MIAA assistant director, said while the number of unified basketball teams has more than tripled from two years ago, the MIAA also is expanding the track season with two additional state championship meets scheduled after 68 schools sent teams to the Division 1 and Division 2 sectional meets last spring.
“It’s such a positive experience to bond and build camaraderie on the court and on the track,” Smith said. “So many schools are joining in with programs.”
In Waltham, the experience of representing the Hawks has been championed throughout the fall. Unified players wear their uniforms to school on game days, the football cheerleaders are at each home game to help lead the rooting contingent for both Waltham and the visiting school, and the fall varsity and sub-varsity teams cut some of their practices short so they can cheer on the unified players.
“The kids walk around school and they are treated like rock stars,” said Waltham unified coach Kevin Niceforo, a special education paraprofessional at the high school. “It’s really brought this Waltham community together. I can’t say enough about this community and the support for this team. It’s been incredible.”
Waltham junior unified player Emily Morales said she thought it was “interesting” when she was first told of the chance to play for her school, and has since grown to really enjoy taking the court each practice and game day.
“It’s a nice experience,” she said. “I like to support my teammates and being all together. It encourages me a lot.”
Strongin, who also coaches the unified track team at Newton South, said at that school both the athletes with disabilities and their partners are treated the same in an effort to have them work with each other as much as possible. As unified programs expand, he hopes the next step will be to introduce them at younger grade levels.
“When kids get to high school it can be a little too late,” Strongin said. “Many of them are very hesitant to join. With that introduction in middle school, we feel they’ll jump at the opportunity.”
Niceforo, a former Salem State softball coach, said he was curious what would come of that opportunity when first approached about coaching the Waltham team. But after five games, he is convinced the unified programs deliver a powerful message for all involved.
“I’ve coached at all different levels,” he said, “all different sports, and I think this could be one of the most gratifying things that I’ve done.”
Scott Souza can be reached at ScottSouza@journalist.com.