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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest High expands its unified sports team to include basketball

Feb 05, 2019 02:44PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High’s unified basketball team and coaches are excited about their first season. (Photo courtesy of Hillcrest High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Senior Tanner Cluff is looking forward to the opportunity to play basketball this season alongside his peers at Hillcrest High. 

The past couple seasons, Cluff has played on the school’s unified soccer team, but now he will be able to play his favorite sport with the introduction of unified basketball at Hillcrest.

“He is very excited to be part of the first team at Hillcrest,” his mother and PTA president Julie Cluff, said. “He knows they are going to rock it and looks forward to the first game where he knows they will win. He wants to represent his school well, win the state championship and make them proud. He is mostly excited to be playing basketball for his school.”

Hillcrest High unified basketball coach Shannon Hurst decided to establish the program, with the support of assistant athletic director Scott Carroll, after taking members of the unified soccer team to Seattle as Team Utah to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games this past summer.

“We didn’t realize basketball was an option until we were in Seattle,” Hurst said. “Seeing what was available gave us a cool start.”

Hurst, who previously coached Hillcrest High’s girls varsity basketball team a couple seasons, was a standout guard at Granite High before playing college ball at Snow College. Currently, in addition to unified sports, as a marathoner, she helps coach cross country and teaches physical education and health.

“It was good to get started, many of the players and mentors met each other for the first time,” she said about the team’s first practice Jan. 8. “We warmed up, stretched, worked on ball handling, passing, our form with shooting, practiced layups and got some shots in before scrimmaging. It was a time to look at what our team looks like. The partners understood their roles as a coach on the floor immediately. It’s a good group.”

Hurst, who is joined by math teacher Matthew Snyder, special education teacher Julie Willeitner 

and Canyons School District adaptive PE teacher Brittany Thomfohrda, hopes to approach the games like she does with soccer. 

“I want the athletes to be involved. We want them to score and have the partner be the helper, not the dominator,” Hurst said. “In soccer, we waited until the other team allowed their partners to score. Once that happened, we gave the green light to our partners, but still, they’re there to help the athletes have fun and have the opportunity to be successful.”

Keeping that in mind, Hurst identified mentors with kindness as well as basketball passion and experience to bring to the team.

“I asked students who could understand their role, almost like a peer tutor mentality, to be on the team,” she said, adding that three mentors were her former players.

Senior Kristen Jensen said she is honored to be part of the school’s first team.

“We have some hard-working kids at Hillcrest and I’m excited to play basketball with them,” said the former Husky center for the girls basketball team. “Our first practice went really well. I’m surprised at the talent we have here and I know that this season is going to be great. These are some of the kindest and friendliest kids at our school and they’ve already taught me so much. Our team has already bonded so much and I know we’ll only get closer as the season goes on. I hope we can act as an example to other schools so they can start their own programs.”

While much of unified basketball is new to Hillcrest, including game days — Feb. 23 and March 15-16 (state) at the University of Utah — Hurst said in mid-January she isn’t sure how many games they play on game days since teams can register up until early February. 

Nearby Bingham High in South Jordan is also forming a unified basketball team in its fourth season, said first-year Bingham coach Alexus Brecht. Last year, Bingham offered unified soccer and unified track.

Hurst is cautiously optimistic. 

“We’d love to win state, bring home a title our first season, but it’s too early to be able to tell,” she said.

Her concentration first is on developing the team’s basketball skills and to work together as well as to gain understanding and student support.

“Since we play at the U, it may be a challenge to get kids there to support us, but I hope the SBOs (student body officers) get the word out. I hope our students have a good heart and will be there,” she said, adding that she may look into getting a bus for the student fans. 

Senior and student body officer of activities Tammie Tan joined the team, bringing her basketball experience as a guard from her freshman year to the team.

“I am doing unified basketball because it gives me an opportunity to be a leader not only for the athletes, but for other students as well,” she said. “I enjoy helping out by showing the athletes some basketball skills and how to have fun. I am also able to be a leader for other students by demonstrating compassion for the athletes and treating them like I would treat any other person. I bring in persistence and a positive attitude. I will always be cheering on the athletes and encouraging them to keep trying.”

Hurst is hopeful for the positive attitude to inspire and spread through the entire student body.

“I’m hoping people are seeing the partners and athletes are bringing awareness about being kind and supporting those around them,” she said. “We are all Huskies, so our goal of unified sports is inclusion.”