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Unified Sports Ready To Get Back to Competing as Soon as Pandemic is Over

For the time being, the ‘inclusion revolution’ is being put on hold.

The Section VI Unified bowling tournament held on March 2 feels like a distant memory today.. What was a watershed moment for Unified sports in New York State, let alone Western New York, was a blip on the radar we now know as the coronavirus pandemic.

Section VI Unified sports chair Doug Ames was on hand to witness 22 local schools and nearly 400 student-athletes compete in what was the Empire State’s biggest Unified bowling event in its five years of offering the sport.

Above all challenges caused by COVID-19, Ames stated the loss of the spring season as the biggest disappointment mainly for the kids in Section VI. Before the statewide shutdown, Ames was encouraged by NYS’ December 2019 approval to extend the age eligibility on inclusive activities for any Unified athletes, boosting it from age 19 to 21.

The many kids who had “aged out” in past years were granted more opportunities, but that will not be the case for those in the 2019-20 senior class. As disappointing as it may be that these seniors’ spring seasons have been snatched away, Ames understands that their health and safety is priority No. 1.

Ames has been steadfast in contacting member schools and coaches during this time with Section VI’s respective third and fifth Unified bowling and basketball seasons being shelved. The former Newfane coach and athletic director is not so concerned about his flagship programs from continuing on after this year.

But the 11 new unified basketball programs, however, has him worried about what each’s future could hold.

“It’s heartfelt because they didn’t get that opportunity. They were really looking forward to it and they didn’t (get that chance),” Ames said. “So now they either have to come aboard with us and … bowl next winter, or now they’re waiting a whole year.”

In the meantime, Ames shared that nearly five new schools have reached out about joining the Unified ranks for 2020-21. But Ames and other chairs across the state must await the decision of the ad hoc committee set up to plan how next school year could look come September, as schools hope to resume in a physical setting sooner rather than later.

One of the other troubling pieces of this lost spring is some of the events that will be put on hold until next school year. Ames said 38 of the 41 Unified basketball programs were planning to send athletes to Iroquois High School on May 1 for a Unified athletes-only day camp event or “skills day,” featuring notable high school coaches throughout WNY, as well as guest appearances from some professional athletes.

The event was also created with the Unified parents in mind, giving them the chance to meet with members of organizations linked to the Special Olympics and other agencies in the Unified sports scene. The plan moving forward is to also incorporate a similar event for Unified bowling at some point during the 2020-21 school year.

Ames also talked about missing out on the annual year-end culmination event, which was slated to be held in Lancaster’s newly minted field house.

Of the 178 schools in the country recognized as top National Youth Unified programs by the Special Olympics this year, there were four from NYS. Three of those selected reign here in Section VI — Iroquois, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls — as the Wolverines were picked as one of the championship programs and were scheduled to be honored this spring.

One member of NFHS’ coaching staff is Sal Constantino, the former varsity boys basketball coach for the Wolverines’ vaunted program. After shockingly stepping down from his head coaching gig in March of 2019, the five-time Class AA sectional champion had been thriving in his new role as a Unified coach.

Having worked with both the Unified basketball and bowling teams, Constantino personally feels how challenging it’s been not working with his kids every day. Especially when you consider that Niagara Falls has more students in life-skills programs than most other programs in Section VI.

Constantino noted that the toughest things about missing Unified’s spring season are not being able to say goodbye to the student athletes and withholding parents from seeing their kids compete. He added that most parents may have never gotten that chance, with most Unified athletes not being able to get involved in youth leagues as kids.

Constantino will not just miss the Unified athletes themselves. He’ll miss the bonds he created with the partners of the athletes as well.

“Sometimes I think we lose track of just how amazing the partners are,” Constantino said. “I really feel for them because they were really looking forward to this season. I look at it like this; I’ve coached at what some people might say is a high level of high school sports. And, I guess at that time when I was going through the moment, I felt like that was so much more important than other things. And then I got involved in the Unified sports and I can tell you that there’s no moments that are more or less important to me than the ones that we share with our Unified kids.

” … Going to the states was awesome. I’ve sat on the bench of a state champion team as an assistant coach and it was awesome. But the things that went on when we played a local team in Unified were just as equal.”

Constantino will never forget the roar of a team bus after letting the kids know they just won their event. Or seeing a Unified game with a fully packed Wolvarena, buoyed by the musical stylings of the Falls’ famous pep band.

Although the future is unsure, Constantino said he’s “hellbent” on making sure things get back to normal in the Unified world. He knows all of WNY will be looking to Ames for the plan moving forward, as Constantino referred to him as Section VI’s “grandfather” of Unified sports.

One other strong figure in the Unified community has been Corrie Murray, who has worked alongside Ames as a resident in Newfane’s school district. Murray’s three children are all involved with Unified — Matthew (athlete), Zachary (partner) and Lizzie (Youth Activation Committee — YAC).

Corrie professed how her family goes “100 miles per hour” when it comes to all things Unified, so to say quarantine life has been an adjustment is an understatement. Whether it was missing the skills day or Newfane’s scheduled day-time basketball game, the Murray family and their fellow Panthers have been left on hold during the pandemic.

“It’s sad. … We live and breathe Unified,” Corrie said.

One aspect that the family has relied on is the daily zoom meetings held by coach Justin Balcom, keeping in touch with the kids by playing games and other constructive activities. Corrie also added how Luke Folts, Special Olympics New York’s director of program for Unified sports, has been conducting zoom meetings with the members of the YAC in Section VI.

Although this has been a resourceful alternative, Corrie worries for the mental health of the athletes like her son Matthew.

The abrupt change, the difference in structure being home from school and not seeing his friends from Newfane and competing districts, Corrie feels for Matthew and the other student-athletes for what they are going through. But she remains positive, sharing that hopefully this lost time will only make next year’s events mean that much more.

Having a schedule mixed with virtual classes, playing video games and hanging out isn’t too bad, but Matthew is anxious for life to get back to normal. It’s upsetting to him that he can’t share one last season with friends like Caitlyn Miller and Matt Schultz, who will both graduate from Newfane next month.

Once his next chance comes, though, he plans to make the most of it.

“I’ll have more fun, I’ll get in better shape and try to recruit more people to play Unified,” said Matthew, who could be entering his final school year this fall.

For Ames, he knows 2020 will be remembered as a lost year for many student-athletes and coaches across WNY. He hopes to get the ball rolling on another strong year for Unified, even sharing his aspiration to bring a fall sport into the Unified landscape.

But until then, he wanted to share a message with the senior student-athletes who could not compete this spring.

“Whether it was an athlete or a partner and you’re graduating or moving on, thank you very much for taking the part and being part of Unified sports,” Ames said. “And being part of the competition and camaraderie. Being a part of that inclusion. Instead of not including, but including those kids, and bringing them in, and being part of the competition. Being part of that world of athletics that everybody gets to compete at and gets that opportunity. That message would be thank you very much for allowing those kids — kids with disabilities — to play.”

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