SHREWSBURY – Last year, support for Shrewsbury’s middle school Unified Basketball Team was outstanding.
Just over a year later, the team was not only back – it was better. After an off-season filled with enthusiasm, practice, and growth, the Shrewsbury middle schools’ Unified Basketball Team capped off its season on April 4 with an intrasquad matchup.
One team becomes two
After the start of middle school Unified Sports team was delayed two years due to the spread of COVID-19, the club rebounded in 2022.
Jason Ponticelli, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Oak Middle School and head coach of the Unified Basketball team, called last season “super successful.”
“We had a great season last year… we really packed the Oak Middle School gym,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
While the program had captured the attention and hearts of the community, Ponticelli and fellow head coach Courtney Delaney, who teaches physical education in the Shrewsbury school system, immediately got to work in an effort to expand the program.
“Right after the season, [Delaney] and I talked about [if] there was a way to expand this program because there certainly [was] interest,” Ponticelli said.
Ultimately, the middle schools opted to create a second team, doubling the size of the program. The players were divided into the “Blue Team,” led by Ponticelli, and the “Gold Team,” coached by Delaney.
While having two teams led to logistical challenges, especially when coordinating practices and traveling to away games, the end result was worth it.
The two teams held joint practices every Monday. When the teams weren’t practicing together, both middle school gyms were used by the players to work on fundamental basketball skills.
“To give that opportunity for students to be part of a team, wear their jersey, get on a bus, [and] go to another school, was just awesome. They were amped. They were so excited,” Ponticelli said.
The teams’ aim is to “run as one,” a phrase embroidered on the teams’ jerseys and promotional material. It’s an unofficial motto meant to remind athletes that although they may be divided between Blue and Gold teams, more unites them than divides them.
“We’re part of a team; we’re here to support each other, we’re here to pick each other up when we fall down, we’re here to encourage each other. You’ll see that tonight at the game – the support on both sides,” Ponticelli said.
The program had expanded so much that the Oak gymnasium could no longer contain the fan base. The event was moved to Shrewsbury High School’s field house, and the Blue Team and the Gold Team were set to go head-to-head.
Fans were greeted by over 50 intricately decorated posters – one for each team member – displayed along the entrance.
At the event, booster club members sold wristbands and peddled 50/50 raffle tickets to help raise money for the middle schools’ Unified Sports Program. The event raised over $2,000.
As each athlete was introduced at the start of the game, they ran down a tunnel of high-fives spanning the width of the court. Cheers and spirited live music from the SHS Pep Band created a supportive and enthusiastic atmosphere.
The National Anthem was sung by Franklyn Hernandez and performed by members of Oak’s American Sign Language Club – yet another one of Ponticelli’s contributions to the school community – before Ryan Dixon, the unofficial “Mayor of Shrewsbury” and soon-to-be Special Olympics Hall of Fame member, made a guest appearance.
“He’s a role model to us all,” Ponticelli said.
Even on nights when the two Shrewsbury middle school teams compete against one another, a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness persisted. Several players handed the ball to competitors to give them another attempt and often both sides cheer when points are scored.
“I was worried about how the dynamics would be having two separate teams – if there would be that separation – and there really hasn’t been. Even when we scrimmage, you’ll notice that the players cheer each other on. It doesn’t matter what shirt you’re wearing,” he continued.
The night ended with recognition of the eighth-grade athletes. Ponticelli hoped many of the participants would decide to join the SHS Unified Team in the near future.
Ponticelli looks to further expand unified activities at the middle schools next year. Though he is still considering different options, he expressed interest in providing an inclusive sport option for athletes in the fall.
Other clubs targeted at students with different abilities have started to appear around middle school. In December, students in Oak’s Unified Social Program decorated cookies for the holidays.
“We’re all about trying to provide as many inclusive opportunities as possible. It just becomes part of the fabric of the school community. One of our core values here in Shrewsbury is equity, and going right along with that is inclusion,” he said.
Shrewsbury’s Oak, Sherwood schools celebrate new unified basketball team