Central hosting Unified hoops tournament

A year ago, Central High School became Shenandoah County’s first campus to offer students with disabilities a chance to compete in high school athletics through the school’s newly formed Champions Together Club. After a successful debut with a unified track and field team last spring, Central is extending its Unified Sports program to the basketball court – and it’s including students from the rest of the county.

Central High School will play host to the county’s first Unified Basketball Tournament on Saturday evening, marking the first time students with disabilities from Central, Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg high schools will have the opportunity to compete with and against each other in an athletic setting.

The brainchild of Central varsity boys basketball coach Brandon Shields, who got the idea from a similar event he witnessed as an assistant coach at Turner Ashby High School several years ago, the Unified Basketball Tournament will begin at 6 p.m. and feature three teams, one for each of the county’s three public high schools. Games will last 20 minutes each and be held in a round robin format, Shields said.

Doors will open to the public at 5:15 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free but donations will be accepted in order to raise funds for future Unified Sports events, said Megan Smith, a special education teacher at Central and the initiator of the school’s Champions Together Club.

Smith said she hopes Saturday’s basketball tournament will educate the community about Unified Sports programs and, in turn, lead to more athletic opportunities for students with disabilities.

“Our goal for this weekend is to say it doesn’t have to be just track and field,” Smith said Thursday. “… Let’s get along with Unified Sports in general, in which students with disabilities can participate and have more opportunities to participate in athletic things with the school. So kind of just educate the community and say that (students with disabilities are) very capable and they’re very much wanting to be a part of the athletic program, so let’s find opportunities for them to be a part of it.”

Students with disabilities who are not yet in high school will also have opportunities to participate in various activities held throughout the gymnasium Saturday, which will be run by Central’s Interact Club.

“They’re actually gonna have adaptive equipment that we have in our athletic department for students with disabilities of any age,” Smith said.

Additionally, the school’s sports medicine program will host halftime activities, and members of Central’s FFA program will create signs and be part of a cheering section that will include members of the local Aktion Club, an adjunct of the Kiwanis Club for adults with disabilities.

“We’re hoping we have a good show from our community members, our teachers and everybody because I think when you see that, you have that experience like we did with track and field last year. You really buy into it,” said Smith, who has volunteered with the Special Olympics for over a decade. “It really emotionally resonates with people and says they want to play sports just like any kid in the school, so let’s make sure more opportunities like that happen. It takes a little bit to put it together but once it gets going it just exists and becomes a part of the school. It’s unique.”

Champions Together, a Special Olympics program formed to promote the unification of high school students with and without disabilities in interscholastic sports, was adopted by the Virginia High School League in the 2014-15 school year. Central was one of about 24 schools to field Champions Together track and field teams in Virginia last year.

Smith called Champions Together events a “unifying experience,” adding that it’s “really neat” that Shields, someone who teaches outside of the school’s special education department, reached out to initiate a Unified Sports event.

“I’m the special education teacher here but I didn’t initiate this. I just think it’s nice that more people in the school are seeing that there’s a need for this,” Smith said. “It’s not just the special ed teachers, but it’s coaches, it’s (general education) teachers, it’s parents. So just really that community component has been exciting to see from a special educator’s standpoint.”

Smith said that since forming the Champions Together Club at Central, she’s reached out to different coaches at the school to see who would be interested in adding unified components to their sports teams. She said Rowdy Hoover, another special education teacher and an assistant coach for Central’s varsity football team, invited some of his students to attend football practices during the fall sports season, and Shields has been doing something similar with the boys basketball program.

“The goal is to eventually grow our Unified Sports program so that it wouldn’t just be track and field but hopefully at least one sport a season would have a unified component to it,” Smith said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com