TRANSCENDING BASKETBALL: The Foundation and Future of a Local Sports League for Disability Students By: Matt Taylor

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1 TRANSCENDING BASKETBALL: The Foundation and Future of a Local Sports League for Disability Students By: Matt Taylor There is nothing quite like the atmosphere at a high school sporting event. The fans, pep bands, cheerleaders, and communities coming together to root for their school is an unparalleled experience for an athlete. Basketball, in particular, is a very energized and exciting sport for high school students to take part in. But before this fall, high school students with developmental disabilities in Rockingham County did not have the opportunity to take part in this seemingly normal athletic experience. That all changed with the founding of the Valley Unified Basketball League. FOUNDATION Local members of Rockingham County Public Schools created this league for the main purpose of providing students with developmental disabilities the same athletic opportunities as regular students. John Woodrum, the Athletic Director at Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, was one of the founders of the league. Woodrum, who coached basketball for about 20 years, started planning out the league in In summer 2014, I started thinking, I wonder what it would look like, to have a league for students with disabilities for basketball, said Woodrum. He went to the Turner Ashby Special Education Department Head Gina Troyer with the idea. With her approval, Woodrum next talked to the local Special Olympics organization that suggested they start a Unified Sports league. Unified Sports are all about social inclusion of those with disabilities through sports. This was Woodrum s goal as well. Thorough planning continued as meetings with the other Rockingham County Athletic Directors and the Virginia High School League (VHSL) took place in September The rest of the school year was spent planning the rules, deciding the number of games, finding partners and officials, and discussing other logistical aspects. After all the planning, it was time to get the students involved. Each of the four Rockingham County High Schools was tasked with finding students to play and help with the league. We pretty much left it up to each school on how they wanted to get their team together, said Woodrum. Woodrum, along with the others involved with the founding of Valley Unified Basketball, wanted the league to be as much like the other sports as possible. They wanted the specialeducation students to be able to feel what it is like to be competitive, to have their peers cheering for them, and everything else that goes along with high school athletics.

2 I wanted them to experience the school spirit. I wanted each school to have that school spirit and pride that goes along with being an athlete for your school, said Woodrum. FIRST SEASON After months of planning and organizing, it was time to host the first games. The fall of 2015 would mark the beginning of the league and of something truly amazing. Turner Ashby hosted the first game. Woodrum had no idea what to expect when he walked into the gym on that first night. He was hoping for maybe a small section of people, but the gym was packed with nearly 750 people. The atmosphere was electric and the support that the athletes received from their peers was incredible. The kids from all the schools were so supportive of all of the kids from all the schools, said Woodrum, There would be Broadway people cheering for Turner Ashby and Turner Ashby cheering for Broadway kids. Chris Dodson, a special education teacher and one of the Unified coaches for Spotswood High School in Penn Laird, believes the opportunity for these students to play in front of their peers was incredibly important for personal and social development. He witnessed the growth of the players as well as how they played the game itself. You saw the excitement grow throughout the year and you saw the way they played the games grow also, said Dodson. By the end of the season, the games had a quick pace, were played very closely to high school rules, and seemed as if you were at a normal night of ball. Each game consisted of four, six-minute quarters, as well as 10-minute warm-ups before each game and five-minute halftimes. Each game also had pep bands, cheerleaders, student cheering sections, and other general fans. All four of the teams consisted of players with and without disabilities. Woodrum noted that Turner Ashby s team consisted of 12 students, eight in special education and four in regular education. Those without disabilities who participated helped with the flow of the game as well as the dedicated referees from the Shenandoah Officials Association who officiated the games for free. Throughout the course of the season, both Woodrum and Dodson witnessed the Valley Unified Basketball League grow and explode in popularity. Attendance grew from week to week with the largest crowd exceeding 2,000 people. What made this first season so successful was the support from the students, faculty, and local communities. Once the word got out about how great these games were, the popularity grew. All people had to do was experience the atmosphere one time and they wanted to come back. From the parents, players, school staff, students, the community, and everyone who saw or heard shed a tear, shared a laugh, and left feeling better than they did when they arrived, said Dodson.

3 The first season of games were hosted on Wednesday nights. Wednesdays were selected to be the night because of the general lack of athletic events taking place on those days for the local high schools in the fall. By the end of the season, Unified Basketball games became the place to be on Wednesdays for many of those in the Rockingham community. Unified games became the gathering place for many community members. The communities were saying I don t know what I m going to do on Wednesday nights now since I won t have Unified Basketball to go to, stated Woodrum on the community s response. One of the most special moments of the season came during a game held at Spotswood High School. Spotswood came from behind and won the game at the buzzer. After this happened, the students in the crowd rushed the court providing an unforgettable moment for all those involved. By the season s end, all of the players lettered, received certificates, and senior plaques just like any of the other athletes would in all the different varsity sports. Another unique aspect of the Valley Unified Basketball League was the trophy. Most other disability sports leagues hand out participation trophies to all those involved. This was different for Unified Basketball. Instead of giving out participation trophies to all participants, Unified Basketball gave out a first place trophy. Faculty members involved, including Woodrum, wanted there to be a winner and a loser to teach these students the valuable lessons of victory and defeat. It s not a perfect society, said Woodrum, You can still work hard and still maybe not receive an award. Lessons, such as these, sometimes cannot be taught in a classroom. They must be learned through experience. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are normal experiences for regular high school athletes. Unified Basketball wanted this to be a part of their league as well to teach the disability athletes about sportsmanship through winning or losing. OFF THE COURT The affect Unified Basketball has had on students with disabilities could be the greatest impact of this league. Social inclusion of disability students was a major factor in the foundation of the Valley Unified Basketball League. Woodrum stated, We felt like the students with disabilities are sheltered a lot. I know they are in classes with other kids, but they are still sheltered. We wanted to make it as much of real-life as possible because once they get out, things aren t the same. The experience of having thousands of their peers, parents, and neighbors cheering for them was significant in the development of these students. The importance was the fact that they did not only get to play with other disability students, but with any of their peers who wanted to participate regardless of disability. This is the future of sports.

4 The personal growth that the faculty saw in their students was something no one could have predicted. Faculty members were expecting to see some personal growth from their students, but some of the things they saw happen to them by the season s end were more than they could have expected. Self esteem is over the moon high; the way they walk, talk, and do things so confidently, said Dodson after the season. Their circle of friends grew, their advocates grew, and their self belief in their abilities came out. One example of how truly important this league is came from a student who was not only autistic, but also suffered from multiple other disabilities. His teacher had him as a student for five years and he had never spoke a word in class. But this all changed once he became involved in the Valley Unified Basketball League. When he started playing, he became more outgoing; he now enters in conversation with other students, he answers questions, and she thinks he wouldn t have done that if it wasn t for this, stated Woodrum. There are numerous stories like that I ve heard throughout the county. One has to believe that there will be even more examples like this one when a new season of Unified Basketball tips off next year. FUTURE OF VALLEY UNIFIED BASKETBALL The future looks bright for the Valley Unified Basketball League. Plans are already in place for next year and many people in Rockingham County are anxious to get the new season underway. As it stands now, the next season of Unified Basketball will be held next fall, at the start of the school year. However, there are discussions of the possibility of exhibition games being played during halftime of this winter s local high school basketball games. Plans of expansion to other areas of the region have also been discussed, but nothing has been set in place. Of all the local school systems, Harrisonburg City Public Schools are most likely to join the league with Rockingham County. But this has yet to be decided. Support from all across Virginia has grown as the word has spread about the league. Several representatives from multiple school districts across the state have contacted Woodrum about wanting to set up their own league within their school district. Places as far as Roanoke and cities in Northern Virginia have been in contact. Although it is called the Valley Unified Basketball League, other sports could join in during the coming years. Volleyball and track are real possibilities if Unified were to expand. In the meantime, league members, such as Woodrum and Dodson, are pleased with the success of the first season and are looking forward to what next season has in store. The possibility of extending the season along with innovative methods of broadcasting the games, such as live Internet streams, has many excited.

5 The season might be over, but no one who witnessed Valley Unified Basketball can forget the impact that this first season had on the students, faculty, coaches, parents, and the Rockingham community. I ve been in education for 33 years and the Unified Basketball thing is probably the most fulfilling athletic event I ve ever been involved with, said Woodrum. Dodson added, It showed many what we have forgotten these days; that the spirit of competition and the will to win is what sports are about. It's about the lessons that come with the wins and the losses, it's about learning that there are roles for everyone at a job and even though your job may not seem as big as another player's, it is just as big in the process. If people have some free time on a Wednesday night next fall, make sure to stop by a Unified Basketball game. Fans will experience first-hand not only the future of sports in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham area, but also what Woodrum describes as, sports in its purest form.

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