Hillcrest High unified basketball team scores on and off the courtMar 30, 2023 03:06PM ● By Julie Slama
Gov. Spencer Cox cheered on unified teams, including the Huskies, at the state unified basketball championships. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
Hillcrest High junior Nancy Diaz was warming up for her second game of a regional tournament, sinking nearly every shot.
“I’m happy I’m shooting well, and we won,” she said about her four baskets. “I like to play with my friends; our team has a lot of fun.”
In unified basketball, there are five players on the court—three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves. Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors.
UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.
“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.”
That is the sentiment of Hillcrest senior Edwin Salinas Garcia.
“I like to help people and it’s fun to support our athletes and play together,” he said. “Unified basketball is all about the Special Olympics kids—giving them a chance to score and being in the forefront.”
Diaz, who also is the goalkeeper for the school’s unified soccer team, has played all three years with Salinas Garcia. This year, the Huskies had two basketball teams, and while Salinas Garcia played on the other team, they practiced together.
“We all have fun and many of us are involved in LIA (Latinos in Action) so we do things together,” he said, adding that he wants to play unified sports at Utah State University next year where he plans to pursue a math major.
In recent years, Hillcrest’s unified team has been grateful of the support of LIA at every tournament game in soccer and basketball, filling the bleachers with signs and cheering.
At the regional tournament, Canyons Education Foundation Officer Denise Haycock also appreciated the partnerships between Jordan and Canyons foundations and the support of sponsors, including Scheels in providing equipment for the unified athletes.
As Hillcrest’s two teams faced different opponents on different courts at the same time, head coach Shannon Hurst relied upon her former student-athlete, now assistant coach, Tanner Cluff to oversee one team.
“I had the same adrenaline rush I had as a player,” said Cuff, a 2019 Hillcrest graduate, who not only competed in the 2018 USA Special Olympic games in soccer, but also has played on Real Salt Lake’s unified soccer team. “I was there as the coach, but I let the partners take the lead in guiding the athletes on the court. I like coaching and seeing the kids on the court executing the plays and skills that we practiced.”
In the first game, Tanner coached Hillcrest against Jordan High.
“The first game was hard and when they lost, coach Hurst came over and told them to forget it and not be down on themselves. I agreed; she was right. I learned that when we lost my senior year. They just needed to refocus and be positive. We did that my senior year and I was able to hit a turn-around three that helped us win,” he said.
Hillcrest bounced back to beat Riverton High for third place. The school’s other team coached by Hurst and assistant Becca Remy won its division.
Diaz, who accepted a blue ribbon with her teammates, was not just excited about going to state, but she also remembered the parade of athletes, lined with cheerleaders and professional team mascots cheering for them.
“State is exciting, and we get to make more friends as we play,” she said.
In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—73 teams competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.
At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, both Hillcrest teams played in close games some “intense” competition, Remy said.
Hurst reminded players in a fun way of skills they practiced, such as using their “snow angel” arms to defend their opponents.
There was plenty of smiles and cheers when it was announced both Hillcrest High teams placed third in their divisions.
Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined Gov. Spencer Cox and First Lady Abby Cox to support the competition, which was held at Weber State University.
Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.
“Utah as a state—we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.
Unified sports engages students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.
“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on and off the court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”
Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.
“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”