ITHACA, N.Y. — Bleachers full of cheering crowds, the camaraderie of being part of a team, and slapping hands with opponents after a fair game are part of the quintessential high school experience for people willing to dedicate themselves to being an athlete. At Ithaca High School, the opportunity to have that experience has just become more inclusive as a mixed-ability basketball team played its first game last week.

“Really it’s just like an amazing way to connect students that are in a school this size that might not know each other,” said Coach Stephanie Valletta. 

Jaden Cruz with the lay-up and Maria Vieira rebounds. Provided photo

She said Samantha Little, director of athletics & wellness, approached her during the winter about launching the high school’s first Unified Sports team, a co-ed basketball team. Unified Sports teams encompass people with varying developmental abilities. At IHS, the 14-person team is comprised of about half people with developmental disabilities. Per unified sports rules, at least three people with disabilities must be on the court at all times and the remaining players cannot have played on a scholastic basketball team. 

“None of them are basketball players, and so it’s actually really awesome to see them learn together,” Valletta said. “It’s just incredible to see the kids come together and teach each other the skills and kind of build that community. It’s really amazing.”

Valletta is a special education teacher at IHS and was the girl’s varsity assistant coach for two years and head coach for an additional two years until about 2016. Her approach to coaching the Unified Sports team, she said, is the same as the one she had while coaching varsity.

“It’s not much different, and I have the same exact approach as far as the team mentality and family mentality,” she said. 

When she coached varsity, she made sure she held her players to a high standard and ensured that they bonded with each other and worked hard together. One of those former players came back to help Valletta coach the Unified Sports basketball team.

The Unified Sports approach was pioneered by the Special Olympics and is in about 4,500 elementary, middle and high schools in the U.S.

IHS graduate Kayla Eells, who is studying education at SUNY Cortland, is helping Valletta and high school senior Ashley Charles is also assisting. Assistant Jenn Harris and Manager Adamu Kittel, a Trumansburg High School student, are also pitching in. 

The five of them have teamed up to create an authentic high school sports team experience, beginning with the basics.

“I think at any level, whatever sport your coaching, I think you would be remiss to miss out on coaching the fundamentals,” she said. 

So practicing twice a week, the team ran drills on how to shoot layups, move their bodies, and dribble. The hard work payed off with a 38-30 win against Owego on May 3 in Bliss Gym at Ithaca High School.

“It was just amazing to see the smiles on the faces of the kids and the families and the people in the crowd,” Valletta said.

The team plays a home game again today, May 8, at 4:30 p.m. against a unified sports team from Elmira. Then they’re slated to play three away games and one more home game on May 24. 

Featured photo provided: Back row-Assistant Coach Ashley Charles, Trey Osadchey, Nick Fenton, Myah Frostclapp, Pop Abdur-Rashid, Nick Pagliaro Middle row- Francesca Santelli, Maria Vieira, Sherese Anderson, Coach Stephanie Valletta Front row- Alice Fenton, Cody Hamilton, John Hicks, Jaden Cruz

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.