SHREWSBURY – Fans filled Shrewsbury’s Oak Middle School gym to the brim on Thursday, gathering to watch the Shrewsbury and Auburn middle school unified basketball teams face off.
This game was extra special for Shrewsbury because this was the team’s first home game in its history.
“Tomorrow is just going to be fantastic,” head coach Jason Ponticelli told the Community Advocate during a practice the day before the game. “Tomorrow is going to be something really, really special that this school has been waiting two years for.”
COVID-19 disrupted plans
Unified basketball was brought to the middle school level two years ago.
Shrewsbury had a team preparing for their season. They held a few practices and were getting ready for their first game when COVID-19 struck.
It was March 12 when Ponticelli, who was the assistant coach at the time, said staff received word that students and staff weren’t coming back the next day because the schools needed to be cleaned as a pandemic precaution.
“Our first game was going to be that afternoon,” Ponticelli said. “So, I had to have some difficult conversations about how we were going to have to cancel the game.”
The students’ entire inaugural season ended up being canceled, as was the following season.
Two years after that initial disappointment the team learned, this year, that they would be able to have a season.
Partnering with the school district’s special education program, Oak and Sherwood staff identified athletes, who are students with intellectual disabilities. The athletes were then partnered with general education students, chosen from a pool of 100 students who applied for about 17 positions.
“In Shrewsbury, we’re really, really fortunate to have some exceptionally empathetic students that really support an inclusive school environment,” Ponticelli said.
Partner Luke MacRae said he joined the team to help fellow students play basketball, to make a new friend and step outside his comfort zone. Team member Jayden Baez said he likes scoring three-pointers.
“When I get three-pointers, I get a lot of points and win the basketball game,” Baez said.
Schools form Booster Club
Beyond the team itself, Ponticelli said he wanted to find a way to get any other interested students involved. So, he created the Unified Booster Club, which helps promote the team and its games.
The team has held practices twice a week, working to forge relationships between the athletes and their partners.
“We really wanted it to be beyond the court, and we’re seeing that already in the hallways,” Ponticelli said.
Some of the partners and athletes high-five each other in the halls or eat lunch together.
Shrewsbury is part of a cohort of four teams from other schools. That format helped set up the team’s first game against Auburn on Thursday.
The team will now be back in action next week for a jamboree with other teams to round out their season.
It’s “phenomenal,” Ponticelli said, to get to this point to have a season.
“I’ve been a teacher here for 18 years, and I’ve been a part of a lot of special things, and this, by far, is the cream of the crop,” Ponticelli said.