CHICOPEE, Mass. — Eight years ago, Special Olympics Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association teamed up to offer Unified sports.
Seven high schools statewide started track and field teams.
On Monday afternoon at Chicopee Comp, eight schools in Western Massachusetts alone fielded teams in the state's second Unified sport, basketball.
"We knew that it would come," Special Olympics' Kathleen Lutz said as the season-ending Western Mass Unified Basketball Jamboree went on around her. "Once school districts see it, it's just an amazing offering for their whole student body.
"To bring this experience, the whole school gets behind it. It's just a wonderful program."
Unified sports allow students with and without intellectual disabilities to play on the same team and represent their school.
Wahconah added Berkshire County's first Unified program last year when it offered a track and field team.
The two schools are part of an explosion in the program's popularity statewide.
"Last year, we had 25 [basketball] teams," Lutz said. "We have, now, 56.
"Unified Track and Field, we were up to 67 programs this past spring, up from 42 the prior year. A lot of those teams then wanted to add basketball. That was the next step in the progression."
Agawam, Granby, Holyoke, Monson and host Chicopee all benefited from having two more Western Mass schools, Mount Greylock and Wahconah, added to the mix this fall.
"Because of the popularity, administrators and athletic directors are hearing about it, so of course, they say it makes sense, now that it's out in our area to also add," Lutz. "We wanted, geographically, to have clusters of teams so the travel wasn't cumbersome."
Neither Mount Greylock nor Wahconah had any trouble filling out rosters for their Unified teams, but smaller schools and districts can and do follow the MIAA model of co-operative teams, where high schools combine to form one team, Lutz said.
At the moment, track and basketball are the only high school sports offered under the Unified model, but Special Olympics is always talking to coaches about other potential sports. And the Unified movement itself goes beyond high school.
"We do have Unified programs at the collegiate level and in our community programming, which is for adults," Lutz said. "We have used the Unified model elsewhere. We have Unified Champion School program, which is specifically to bring it into high school.
"Eventually, we'd like to bring it down into the middle schools, so that students can have this experience and have the opportunity to play."
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