Unified Sports Basketball Jamboree

Raegan Mavity pushes Marah Duran Borboa through the tunnel of cheerleaders and teammates during player introductions before the Unified Sports Basketball Jamboree, Tuesday, January 25, 2022, at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

When Brady Pond was hired as the athletic director at Westwood High School, he recognized an opportunity to build the school’s Unified sports programs.

He set out to accomplish his goal, meeting with district leadership and the Special Olympics to provide opportunities for special education students at Westwood. The program started small but in two short years has grown to a level where Westwood can now field competitive Unified sports teams and compete in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Now, others in the district are following his lead for the greater good of special needs students in Mesa Public Schools.

“I felt like it was a need, sort of a campus culture change,” Pond said. “There were a lot of groups, not for better or worse, just some kids doing their own thing. This is a way to push toward more inclusion. We can talk about including others but this way we are putting our money where our mouth is and figuring out a way to connect the community.”

Pond spent his first year at Westwood becoming accustomed to the culture and the inclusion of special education students. Coming from Centennial High School in the Peoria Unified School District, he saw it thrive and knew he could accomplish the same at Westwood.

At the time, Westwood was slim with opportunities.

The school ended up hosting the Unified state badminton qualifiers despite not having a team. Pond invited all the special education classrooms at Westwood to watch and bring some excitement. Both the teachers and kids immediately bought in to the idea.

In his second year, Pond set up a Unified physical education class where athletes could practice during the day and not worry about transportation. They also established a badminton, basketball and track team. It grew from there.

“We had so much interest we had to add another class session,” Pond said. “We are sitting at around 70 kids total between the two classes that are now a part of it. We hope to keep growing it from there.”

Seeing how successful Westwood’s program had become, Pond implored district leadership to help establish other programs at neighboring schools. He sought the help from new district Athletic Director Tommy Eubanks, who obliged and began assisting with the implementation of the Unified program at other schools.

Pond and representatives from the Special Olympics of Arizona began visiting each district school to pitch the idea. All of them agreed and have started programs.

“It’s been a really awesome thing to witness and see,” Eubanks said. “Westwood was the beacon school for this program, and we’ve taken that model and now every school has one. Maybe not to the same scale, but we expect it to just continue to grow.”

Red Mountain began hosting a modified P. E. class with both general and special education students about seven years ago. Steve Selby, a Unified P.E. teacher, basketball coach and cross country and track & field coach for general ed students, was presented the opportunity in his second year at Red Mountain to be a part of it and he immediately accepted.

This year, he said, is the first year Red Mountain has officially jumped into the Unified sports scene. But with how well the modified class worked, starting the sports programs was a no-brainer.

“It worked so well for athletics, and everyone involved,” Selby said. “It was like a perfect storm of everything coming together. This year, it’s really taken off.”

Selby had to request a co-teacher for the Unified P.E. class because of how much the program has grown. There are 25 general education students who take part in the class as buddies alongside 25-30 special education students. Selby said eight to 10 of those special education students also compete in basketball with 12 buddies.

Selby believes his team is still a year away from competing in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Unified competition like Westwood, but they have taken part in basketball showcases with other schools.

One was recently held at Westwood between its program and those from Red Mountain and Mountain View. Westwood’s spirit line and Unified spirit line cheered for athletes as they were introduced by the public address announcer. Students filed in and out of the gym to cheer on their peers.

Pond said it made the athletes feel like super stars. Selby said it was a special moment for everyone involved and that’s only scratching the surface of the good it brings to the athletes and their families.

“What kid doesn’t love to compete in front of their peers and have a cheering squad?” Selby said. “It was awesome. We’re thankful for the Unified partners, the buddies. The athletes just had an absolute blast and the parents have been super supportive and appreciative of the program.

“The kids just absolutely love it, man. They’re nuts about sports, and they love it.”

The Unified program at Mesa, Skyline and Dobson have also seen exponential growth in the last few years. Other districts have also followed suit as well, creating more and more programs to compete in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Unified division.

Many schools have added other sports such as football, providing even more opportunities for special education students and others to become more involved.

Pond is proud of the work he’s been able to accomplish at Westwood and what he’s been able to do to assist other schools. But he is far from taking all the credit.

To him, seeing the smiles on the faces of athletes and their buddies who compete alongside them is rewarding enough.

“I think it’s great,” Pond said. “At the end of the day, if we can say we’ve done our part and we can give as many opportunities for as many kids as we can, that’s the payoff. I don’t really care if my legacy is state champions or any of that stuff.

“If we can say we taught kids how to be kind to each other and we taught kids to include kids with various disabilities and levels of ability then to me, that’s the biggest win for us.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira

 

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