First Unified Basketball season a success

Posted on: Aug 16, 2018

First Unified Basketball season a success

A new athletic program helped Delano students learn more about one another and build relationships this past spring.

The Unified Basketball team combined students with and without intellectual disabilities for practices and a tournament against similar teams from other schools.

“A lot of people look past people with special needs, and they don’t realize what these people can do. They kind of underestimate them,” said junior Chad Kestner, one of about a dozen student “partners” recruited by DHS staff members and coaches Matt Nohner and Marie Techam to work with the three participating athletes. “At the beginning I was one of those people. I underestimated them. Now I have three special needs students in my last block class and we can just have a conversation like you would with anyone else. They’re just regular kids.”

Kestner said the experience was “definitely an eye-opener,” which is exactly what Nohner and Techam hoped to see when they decided to pull a team together this year.

“Matt and I thought it would be a great idea to present the school with this opportunity for more inclusiveness,” said Techam.

The squad originated with them because their spouses work in the Orono district, which already had an established Unified Sports program governed by Special Olympics. The Orono DECA program, headed up by Keith Jurek of Delano, made a goal to spread the Unified program to another school, and Delano was a natural partner because of those connections.

“The idea is for those with and without intellectual disabilities to play together,” said Techam. “The idea is that they in turn will see each other in the hallways and say hi and maybe sit by each other at assemblies or just have more interactions with one another. It feels great for the kids with intellectual disabilities, but also those without. I think the biggest growth we saw in the short time we did it was in our kids who were helping out, our partners.”

Another one of those partners was junior Caden Link, who saw an opportunity to contribute as a member of the team.

“I had experience working with special needs before, so it seemed like it was a good fit,” Link said. “You kind of let (the athletes) do their own thing. You can’t expect them to do everything the way you had it planned. You can help them, but ultimately you have to kind of let them do what they want to, because you want to make it a good experience for them. It’s not always about winning.”

Winning may not have been the primary focus, but in its first season the Delano team did well despite a compressed schedule. The team had just three evening practices before a one-day tournament on April 13 that pitted them against several other schools. Delano went undefeated, with its three athletes scoring every point along the way. One of those athletes was eighth-grader Dillion Mrnak.

“Dillion was really outgoing and he would include everyone at practice and make sure we all had something to do,” said Techam. “If you were standing around he would call you out and make sure everyone was a part of it. I think that was a huge ice-breaker. He was really good at helping out and making kids feel included.”

What part of the experience did Mrnak enjoy the most?

“Shooting,” he said. “And dribbling and passing.”

Mrnak said the practices and games were equally fun, and he enjoyed meeting new friends when the season began in late March. Learning the game of basketball was enjoyable, he said, adding that he plans to play again next year. Did he get nervous before the competition?

“Nope. I was soooo excited,” he said.

Mrnak also said he appreciated his coaches.

“They’re nice, they’re friendly and they’re awesome,” he said.

The other athletes included junior Jacob Praska, who Kestner said piled up the steals on defense, and senior Elena MacLean, who proved to be a natural scorer.

While victories on the court were nice, Link and Kestner agreed that the most fun of all was the bus ride to Orono on the day of the tournament.

“That was the most memorable part,” Kestner said. “It was just regular high school stuff. All the boys were in the back, all the girls were in the front, and we were all just hanging out, doing kid stuff, telling jokes, listening to music. It was a good time.”

Nohner said that the bus ride, the games and lunch together on tournament day were not the only highlights.

“There were a lot of good experiences for the athletes there,” he said. “They did an opening ceremony with a torch and our athletes were the ones who got to hold the torch up. So to have that experience was really awesome for them.”

While there is a possibility to expand Delano’s Unified program to other sports in the future, coaches and partners said the more immediate goal for next year is to expand the basketball roster. The overall experience is the primary focus for both student partners and athletes, and all skill levels are welcome.

“I’ll definitely do it again next year,” said Link. “I just hope we can get more athletes.”