With all due respect to the fantastic boys and girls prep basketball going on in Aurora, Unified basketball has taken over like none other.
Both school districts with city high schools — the Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools, plus Regis Jesuit — all have programs which pair special needs athletes with able partners so they can compete together on the basketball floor.
While Unified basketball has been a staple around Cherry Creek high schools for quite awhile, it is a new push across the Aurora Public Schools. Gateway has a team for the first time this year and has experienced instant success.
With just one practice under their belts, the Olys won the first Adapted Athletics basketball tournament hosted by Jefferson County Jan. 19 at the Gold Crown Field House. It sparked an immediate response at the school.
“It has been one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my eight years of teaching, honestly,” said Aoi Sorenson, who organized the Gateway team this year along with Rachel Mathews.
“Especially with the success we are having and to win the tournament right away,” she added. “It’s created a really positive thing not just for our kids, but for the general population of the school. They saw the first-place trophy that we brought home.
“Our kids walk through the hallways with their heads held high and people give them high fives. Normally these are kids that don’t get known, so it has been really awesome to see.”
Aurora Central, Cherokee Trail, Rangeview and Smoky Hill joined Gateway as Aurora representatives among a field of 31 teams that included schools in districts in Boulder, Brighton, Denver, Colorado Springs, Frederick, Greeley, Littleton, Longmont and Jefferson County as well.
Gateway followed up its tournament win with a 39-33 victory over Aurora Central Jan. 23, with the school’s varsity boys and girls basketball teams in attendance to support. The Aurora Public Schools teams — Aurora Central, Gateway, Rangeview and Vista PEAK — play each other once this season. Hinkley doesn’t have a Unified basketball team this year, however Aurora Public Schools District Athletic Director Michael Krueger said the school will have a Unified soccer team in the spring.
Rangeview debuted Unified basketball last season in the district and the response it received showed the district that it was needed all over.
“Vic (Rangeview athletic director Strouse) did a phenomenal job of piloting the idea last year and it was so successful that the goal was to get every school in the district to have a program,” Krueger said.
“The reaction we’ve gotten has been nothing but positive, from staff members to parents to the kids and schools,” he added. “This is something where everybody is cheering for everybody and it’s a great reminder of why we do educational athletics. The atmosphere is so positive and the kids are having so much. Even the officials have fun, so it’s a great reminder of the purpose of sports.”
Many around the Cherry Creek district comment that Unified sports is “the best thing we do” and the popularity continues to grow as the years go on.
While Aurora Public Schools and Regis Jesuit hold their Unified games as separate events, the Cherry Creek schools have their teams play primarily just prior to the varsity girls and boys basketball games. At times, the largest attendance for any of the three games is for Unified.
Cory Chandler has run the Unified basketball program at Grandview for quite some time and it has blossomed into the largest around. He has more than 60 kids on the team this year — including more general ed helpers than special ed kids — and has to divide the team in half to compete in a given game.
It’s the most wonderful problem Chandler can think to have.
“It’s been really exciting to see it growing everywhere,” Chandler said. “We started with two teams here and its spread like wild fire.”
The Unified program was just starting when Greg Bird was in school at Grandview, and the budding New York Yankees star infielder came back to serve as an honorary captain for the Wolves game against Cherokee Trail Jan. 11.
Bird, who was drafted by the Yankees out of high school, comes back to the school to speak with special needs classes every year and spends hours at a time talking to them about his career and his time at Grandview.
“I come back pretty much every year, but I’d never been to one of the games,” Bird said. “Some of them I’ve known before and some I just met, but it’s great. They love it. It is really unbeliveable where it is now from where it started to where it is now.”
Regis Jesuit is right in the middle, as it is in its fourth year as a Unified school. The program has two basketball teams in play this year with eight players, eight partners, two coaches and a manager, and has also had flag football and will offer Unified soccer in the spring.
The Regis Jesuit program is primary made up of athletes in their 20s who have graduated high school, but still want to be part of a Unified program.
“We’ve are finding that our program is really helping fill a void in the life of special needs ‘twentysomethings,’” Regis Jesuit Special Olympics Club Moderator Jane Whitley wrote. “They are missing the connection and acceptance they felt in high school and do not have a place they feel connected to until they get involved in our program.”
Seven of the 16 Unified athletes at Regis Jesuit have some ties to the school either with a current or former sibling.
Regis Jesuit has a Dance Marathon coming up Jan. 28 with all the proceeds going to Special Olympics.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
UPCOMING AURORA UNIFIED BASKETBALL GAMES
Friday, Jan. 27 — Rangeview at Aurora Central, 4 p.m.; Overland at Eaglecrest, 7 p.m.; Smoky Hill at Grandview, 4 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 28 — Cherry Creek at Cherokee Trail, noon; Monday, Jan. 30 — Gateway at Rangeview, 4 p.m.; Vista PEAK at Hinkley, 4 p.m.; Regis Jesuit (Red) at Aurora Central, 5:30 p.m.; Tuesday, Jan. 31 — Aurora Central at Brighton, 6:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 1 — Cherry Creek at Overland, 4 p.m.; Cherokee Trail at Smoky Hill, 4 p.m.; Eaglecrest vs. Regis Jesuit Red, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 4 — Grandview at Cherokee Trail, 11:30 a.m.; Smoky Hill at Overland, noon; Monday, Feb. 6 — Aurora Central at Vista PEAK, 4 p.m.; Tuesday, Feb. 7 — Rangeview at Brighton, 6:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 8 — Aurora Central at Rangeview, 4 p.m.; Grandview at Eaglecrest, 4 p.m.; Overland at Cherokee Trail, 4 p.m.; Rangeview at Regis Jesuit (White), 7 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 10 — Eaglecrest at Cherry Creek, 4 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 11 — Overland at Grandview, 4 p.m.; Monday, Feb. 13 — Overland at Rangeview, 4 p.m.; Vista PEAK at Gateway, 4 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 15 — Regional tournament; Cherry Creek at Grandview, 4 p.m.; Smoky Hill at Eaglecrest, 4 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 17 — Cherry Creek at Smoky Hill, 4 p.m.; Cherokee Trail at Eaglecrest, 4 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 22 — Regis Jesuit (Red) vs. Cherry Creek, 6 p.m.; Wednesday, March 1 — Regis Jesuit (White) vs. Eaglecrest, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, March 8 — Smoky Hill at Regis Jesuit (White), 7 p.m.; Saturday, March 11— State tournament at Gold Crown Field House