BERLIN, New Hampshire (NEWS CENTER) -- The Berlin High School Mountaineers Unified Basketball team is exploring new heights in its first season of existence. The team, which brings players with developmental disabilities on to the same court as their typically developing peers, was already a success before they played their first game.
"It is a great experience for them to actually feel what it is like to have a varsity sport, and for us to just be there, it is the best feeling in the world," explained junior Richard Dragon. "It is amazing. I really like spending time with the kids, and it is really life changing for us and them."
Bringing unified basketball into the state's high schools has been a collaborative effort between the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association and New Hampshire Special Olympics. The program started with six schools participating in 2012, and has tripled to eighteen schools fielding teams this winter.
NHIAA executive director Patrick Corbin says they have tried to make unified sports as parallel as possible to regular sports offered by schools, while raising the bar for athletes with disabilities. He says grant money provided to each school has helped off-set the cost of uniforms, paying for qualified officials and transportation to away games.
Each team plays a minimum of four and maximum of eight games against teams in their region, with the top eight teams making the tournament and competing for a state championship.
Long time Special Olympics volunteer and coach Karen Turgeon is leading the Mountaineers on their first year expedition.
"The athletes are getting more confident in some of the things that they are doing, they are getting accepted more within the school, as well as the community," she said. "It is more than just basketball, it is just acceptance, and teaching compassion, and teaching so much more."
The team is co-ed, and during games three players with developmental disabilities must be on the court with two peer teammates at all times. Aside from that difference, the players are expected to compete following all the regular rules of the game. While infractions like traveling are not as strictly enforced during unified games, the referees are instructed not to cater to the athletes.
"I like doing it. It is really fun," said freshman, Isaac Blaine. He says he's never played on a team like the Mountaineers before, but has always enjoyed shooting hoops in his backyard. He says he practiced more to get ready for his team's home debut.
"I was waiting for it," said Blaine. "I was actually really nervous for it too. I was getting ready. I went to the rec like once during this week."
Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not cooperate, and the game was postponed due to snow until February 7th. The kids were visibly disappointed, but their spirit was not broken.
"I like basketball," said junior David Morse.
Morse says he also likes his peer helpers, and especially enjoyed having members of the girls basketball team help out at practice. But his favorite part?
"I like the pizza party at the end of every game," exclaimed Morse. "Pizza!"
"They can do anything we can do," said junior Justin Dickinson. "They are normal. They are great students. They try their best. They are better basketball players than I am. Watch our games, I mean they'll own me."
The benefits for the athletes playing unified sports don't end when the practices or games do. Corbin says the unified teams appeal to students not interested in mainstream athletics, and help kids integrate into their school community.
Justin Dickinson, who never played for his high school team before despite being well over six feet tall, agrees.
"It kind of helps you to get to know them more, on like a different level, because before you would just see them around the halls and say 'hi, how you doing?' Now you get to practice and see them a couple hours every week out of school," he said.
"Just because you are different doesn't mean you should be excluded," stated Dragon. "Who are we to judge why they can't play basketball because of intellectual disabilities. I mean, they should have the right to play a sport just like we should."
Thanks to unified sports, everyone has a chance to compete, bond with teammates and experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association is also working to expand the number of schools participating in unified sports, as well of the activities offered to athletes. Currently kids can compete in soccer in the fall, basketball during the winter sports season, and volleyball and track and field in the spring.