Unified Sports

     All good things must come to an end. For my senior year, that very special thing was the end of my Unified sports career.

     Unified sports have been around for a while, but recently, more and more people have been joining the team. With being runners-up in 2020 and 2022 in soccer, and both volleyball and soccer champions in 2021, the members of this Co-Ed team have certainly proven the strength of the Oyster River Unified program. As someone who has played Unified sports for three years, I wanted to talk about how it feels to be with my team. I will never forget the rush of the games, the fun of the practices, and the strong connections I have built that I hope last a lifetime.

     I remember hearing about Unified sports because a couple of my friends had signed up to play on the soccer team in the fall of my sophomore year. With the fresh scent of COVID still in the air and school being online, I figured this would be a good way to see my friends and get back out there a little more. While I didn’t know exactly what to expect, I had known that Unified was a team consisting of some athletes who have IEPs, which are independent learning plans as independent and partners who get to help and be a part of the team as well. See Abby Schmitt’s article, Unified Sports, to hear more about what the Unified program is.

     When I started, I had almost no experience. I had played soccer when I was 8, but other than that, nothing. I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect and thought that maybe I’d be cut as a part-ner because I had no experience, and I didn’t want to let my team down. Turns out I was wrong.

     When I went to the first practice, I was surprised to see that not a lot of people had actual soccer experience, something that made me feel so much more comfortable. This meant that a lot of us were going to learn together and that felt great.

     Since my 2020 season was my sophomore year, the memories of everything are a little hazy, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t remember the big take aways. I remember gaining a lot of good soccer experience and making a lot of friends. I remember learning that I had a lot in common with many people I had never met and that was wonderful to learn.

     Megan Moody (‘23) also played Unified soccer with me my sophomore year and was actually one of the people who convinced me to play. When I asked her about her favorite memory from the sophomore year season, she brought up a story I hadn’t thought of in a while.

     “I remember the game we played at Epping High School. It was a playoff game and it had started to snow. It was so cold, so the team all huddled in the shed. Our parents had brought a ton of blankets for us, and we all talked and tried to stay warm. It was worth it in the end when we won, though.”

      We played so well as a team that we made it to the NHIAA championship for the first time in Oyster River Unified sports history. In the end, we ended up being runners-up to Dover High School. This was disappointing, but it meant one thing to me: I have to come back next year for a win.

     Winter came and that meant the start of Unified basketball. While this was one Unified sport I didn’t play, this was the beginning of Mitchell Warden’s (‘23) Unified career. Warden had played golf previously in the fall but decided he “wanted to try something new…and I enjoyed it.” While unfortunately the basketball team didn’t make it to championships that winter, volleyball was quick to come in the spring.

     I decided to join Unified volleyball that spring, not only because I had prior experience, but also because I missed the feel of the Unified team and figured playing would be a good way to end my sophomore year. Warden, who plays every Unified sport, also joined volleyball. While more of my immediate friends were participating in other spring sports and couldn’t play Unified, I was surrounded by new people, so I felt much more comfortable playing.

     I remember liking the feel of volleyball for different reasons. I liked the fact that I could do a little more, and that I understood volleyball more. The season felt like it flew by and before we knew it, we were back at a championship game, ready to yet again take on the Dover Green Waves.

     Unfortunately, I had to miss the game because I was under the weather, which was very disappointing. However, I was very proud of my team for taking home Oyster River’s Unified sport’s’ first championship in 2021. While I couldn’t be there, knowing I was on the team was reward enough.

     In the fall of 2021, I returned to Unified Soccer and was surrounded by some of my old friends, as well as some new team-mates. Tommy Fogg (‘24) decided to join the team with his older brother that year. Fogg joined because “I thought it would be fun to help out others and get some extra exercise.”

     My experience and Fogg’s experience were a bit different though. Being on the team for the second year now, I could feel the community of the team getting closer. I had begun to make a lot of new friends and was even given a nickname for my stellar defense: “Rabid Wolverine.”

     The season of 2021 taught everyone a lot. This year was a lot more focused on team bonding and really working hard. Fogg said that one of his biggest learning experiences with this team was “making everyone feel included and happy… Unified reminds you to always be nice to people.”

     Catherine Stevens (‘23) also played Unified soccer in the 2021 season. While Unified has a lot of good things, Stevens thinks there are some things that can still be learned about Unified sports. “[I wish people knew] it’s a serious thing. I feel like no one really takes it as seriously as other sports.”

     Attendance did increase though when Unified Soccer went to the NHIAA championship again, playing against the Green Waves for the third time. Because of this, fans made the effort to come to the game, and for me, that was an amazing thing to see. I enjoyed being cheered on by my teammates and peers. With the cheers, along with everyone playing so strong and working hard, Oyster River Unified took home another championship against Dover, and this time, I actually got to be there.

      It felt amazing to get to be there and help my teammates. I played strong defense and when I heard the final buzzer of the game ending and saw my teammates celebrate as they rushed the field in a sea of hugs and high fives, I felt truly proud of the part I had played to get us here.

     After that, more and more people started to recognize Unified, and that made my teammates and me feel amazing. People saw the true athletic hardship that goes into Unified and I think that was an important thing. The other Unified sports also played well that season, but unfortunately, there were no more championships. Soccer was the only Unified sport I was able to play because of my busy junior year schedule, but that wouldn’t stop me from returning for one last season.

     This past 2022 soccer season, I went in with a positive attitude, but also a heavy heart. This would be my third and final year of Unified sports and I was emotional about that. The team also was missing a big part this season, and that was coach Alex Satterfield, who was no longer with the Oyster River School District.

     While a lot of us missed the coach who has been with us for so long, we were very lucky to have a new coach join the team. Cam Calato, a paraeducator at Oyster River, stepped into the role in Satterfield’s place. See Abby Deane’s article, Unified Soccer – Returning Champs, to see how the team felt about this at the beginning of the year. While coaching Unified wasn’t something he expected to be doing, he said, “When the position opened up, I wanted to do it. I knew it was going to be something I’d enjoy.”

     Calato was a very welcoming coach and took on the role with such passion. “[Unified] brings so many different types of people together.” That was certainly something I loved about it too. I loved that I had my specific group of Unified friends which consisted of so many people. At this point, I had played for so long and knew everyone so well, returning for the fall season felt like such a relief.

     This season was shocking to me because we had almost an un-defeated season-we even beat Dover! The only team that we lost to was Exeter during the regular season. They deserved it though; they played super well and had a super strong team. However, the team felt as strong as ever this year. Everyone felt bonded so close, and I can definitely say that I was feeling a little teary-eyed about having to be done with each passing practice.

      After an intense game with Keene in the semi-finals, I was worried that was going to be my last game. They were up by two and I could feel the team getting tired. However, sometimes I even doubt myself and the team pulled through in the second half and we won.

      Going to Exeter that Sunday for the championship game, I felt so many emotions. I was ready to win and gave it all I had, while still accepting that this was my last Unified game. The team gave everything, we all played so hard. However, Exeter played a little harder and got to take home their first championship, which was good for them, but I could feel the tears beginning to well. It wasn’t until one of my friends on the team, Alexa Gombar (‘24) came up to me on the field after and asked me if I would still come to the games next year. That’s when the tears began to flow as we shared a hug.

     Unified was one of the most unexpected turns in my high school career. I never saw myself playing sports in high school, but I was lucky enough to be a part of one of the best teams at Oyster River. I have so many great friends on this team that I will never forget. In my opinion, Unified taught me more than anything else in high school, and I am so grateful I got to do it.     To all underclassmen, I would highly recommend joining a Unified sport. Unified will forever be my favorite sport, and my team was one of the best. I learned so many lessons that helped me on the field, and life lessons that I will hold now that I’m off the field.

– Tess Brown

Image Courtesy of Madelyn Marthouse