A player dressed in green dribbles towards the goal while Oyster River players follow close behind. The green player kicks the ball towards the net. Rowan Townsend bats the ball away from the net as her teammates cheer. She dabs.
The ORHS unified program aims to unite students with disabilities and students without disabilities on a sports team. There are two roles on the team. The students with disabilities are called players, and the students without a disability are called partners. Unified sports are recognized by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) as an official sport. Oyster River High School offers a sport each season: soccer, basketball, and track and field. Unified sports were introduced to Oyster River in 2013, and it has been a growing program ever since. Students partake for various reasons, but mostly because of the great team environment.
Erin Rouillard has been a player on unified sport teams for 5 years. She has done soccer, basketball, and track and field. Rouillard first joined when she was a freshman because she “wanted to try to commit to a high school level sport team” and “get more active with the other kids.” She said her favorite part of being on the team is, “supporting my friends and hanging out with all the partners.”
“The kids are great,” agreed Hailey Saravong (‘18) who has participated as a partner in all three unified sports offered at ORHS over the past four years of her high school career. According to Saravong, “[The players] teach you a lot,” and every loss is a learning experience. The players never seem to give up. She gives the example, “if one of the players doesn’t score in the game, they get upset but they would calm down quickly and say ‘it’s okay, I’ll try again next game.’ They understand that winning isn’t everything.” This is the mentality that Saravong believes makes the team strong, saying, “that effort and teamwork is what makes us win games.”
Saravong originally joined the unified soccer team her freshman year after her sister recommended it to her. She didn’t have a fall sport at the time and thought it would be a great opportunity. She now is on track to be a 12 season athlete, an official award given by Oyster River High School.
“We’re going to have a banquet just like [other teams.] They get letters; they get pins.” said Kathleen Kelley, a teacher helper on the team. Unified Sports are just like any other sport offered at Oyster River High School. They have practices and games, and students are expected to be just as committed.
One of the few differences that Nick Ricciardi, who coached unified soccer for four years, noted is the competitiveness. “A lot of high school sports are really high stakes, and unified sports are a little less. It’s a fun atmosphere to be out there with the kids.” Although unified sports aren’t necessarily as competitive as other varsity sports offered at ORHS, David Holmes (‘18) stated “it’s designed to be a fun way for the kids to play a sport, but it ends up being more competitive than most expect it to be. The kids not only play to have fun, but they want to win too, just like how anyone would want to win a game.” Although, he says that one’s athletic abilities is not important to be one the team.
It’s not a big deal if a student doesn’t have prior experience interacting with students with disabilities. In fact, watching students learn how to interact is one of Kelley’s favorite parts of being on the team. “When the partners come and they’re new to unified sports, they have to learn how to interact with these students that they probably wouldn’t interact with during the school day,” she explained. She loves “how quickly they bond and meld.” She continued, “the next thing you know, they’re helping each other out as opposed to a coach or a staff member from the school helping facilitate those interactions.”
This year, there were as many helpers as players on the soccer team. In the past, there’s been as few as three. “The partners would get very tired easily, and that would affect the games. Then the athletes would become really tired,” according to Saravong. The more students that participate, the better.
Kelley makes the point that unified sports are not offered at all high schools and she wishes more people took advantage of the opportunity. She wants “more people to know about it, more people to support it, more spectators. Then it gets the attention that any other sport teams at the school has.”
“It’s an incredible and unique experience,” agreed David Holmes. He encourages other students to join.
If you are interested in participating in unified track and field, contact Andy Lathrop at firstname.lastname@example.org.