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BRATTLEBORO — The winter sports season has come to an end, but with the arrival of spring the sport of basketball will continue when the Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) unified basketball team opens its season at the beginning of April.

Unified basketball is an all gender inclusive program that pairs athletes who may have disabilities with partners that do not have disabilities. At any given time, there are three athletes on the floor with two people who are not disabled. In addition, according to Vermont rules, the partners are not able to score baskets, leaving the scoring all to the athletes. The program is run through Special Olympics Vermont.

Coming into this season, head coach Tyler Boone said there are about 20 members of the team between the athletes and partners. The number is an uptick from previous years, so much so that Boone said it is the first time that they have not had to try to assemble a team in the six years that Boone has been coaching the team.

The reason for that, Boone believes, is a direct result of a change that occurred last year. BUHS Athletic Director Chris Sawyer suggested that the unified basketball team hold games in the middle of the day in the gymnasium, with the students and faculty coming together to watch the game, Boone said. For many of the athletes, it was the first time that they had people other than their family members watching their games, Boone said. It was an experience not lost on them.

“They absolutely loved it. You saw just a rise in self-esteem and confidence because, after the game, the students that came to the game would high five our kids in the hallway and call them by name,” said Boone. “So, when the goal of the unified model is to make a more inclusive community, world, and school, it just brings everyone together. It’s good for everyone. It’s good for our team. It’s good for the fans. It’s good for the staff and the school and it’s just an amazing thing for the community.”

Brattleboro Union High School won the National Banner Recognition status for unified sports, whole school engagement, and inclusive youth leadership, Boone said. This year, Boone said they want to continue celebrating some of the things that have been represented in the program. They have already celebrated International Angelman Day on Feb. 15 to draw attention to Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that mainly affects the nervous system. There will also be a spirit week which will focus on Down syndrome, girls and women in sports day, cerebral palsy, autism and foster youth. Foster youth is being celebrated because Boone said many of the people in the program have spent time in the foster care system.

The program has also partnered with the Queer Student Alliance, a BUHS club, to hold a transgender day of visibility.

“(In) a lot of states trans participation in high school athletics are being limited, but we want to celebrate that unified is an all gender, all-inclusive option available to everyone,” said Boone. “Vermont does have a policy that you are allowed to participate in the sport consistent with your gender identity, so I don’t think Vermont is at risk, but we want to just show solidarity. People should be able to be who they are and that’s what Special Olympics and unified sports is all about.”

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Only three athletes from the program graduated last year. Coming into this season, Boone said the team is comprised largely of juniors and seniors, nine or 10 of which are returning from last year. As a result, Boone said there has been some dramatic changes in the performance of some of the athletes on the team and Boone thinks part of that is a result of playing in front of a crowd.

“These games matter. I fully buy into that. In a whole school year, we pretty much center them for three to four hours and you see the changes in the confidence, in the communication skills, and all of the benefits of doing it, and I think it’s not a coincidence that we’ve made such a big leap year to year after our season last year,” said Boone. “I’ve had them for years and just the growth from last year to this year, I would never have expected it in my wildest dreams.”

Boone believes the experience of playing in front of a crowd had a two-pronged effect. The athletes enjoyed it so much that they told their friends, which Boone said contributed to the increase in participants this year. It also gave the athletes more confidence and has helped them further develop their basketball skills.

A major change has come on the defensive end. In previous years, Boone said there has not typically been much in the way of defense. This year, Boone said they have some athletes with natural skills on defense and there has been an increase in things like blocks and steals as well as some of the intangible aspects of the game that result in forcing turnovers.

Offensively, the team has taken some large steps as well, Boone said.

“This year we have designed plays, which is really cool. Sometimes our skill level doesn’t allow us that. This year it does and it’s really exciting for some of these players,” Boone said. “Last year our offense was mostly right around the rim, within three to five feet. Layups only. We have a couple of kids now that are shooting from three; that can shoot better than me from three. We have kids that you can just give it to them. We’re going to score fast break points this year, which is somewhat unusual in the unified game. This is one of the best teams that I have ever had.”

The unified basketball team starts its season on April 3 against Burr & Burton Academy at 2:15 p.m. at Brattleboro Union High School.

Their roster for the opening day includes the following athletes and partners: Gabe Raymond, Alana Bell, Thomas Bell, Jeffery White, Austin Pinette, Mario Day, Ashley Cleveland, Devon Rabideau, Timothy Galdamez, Silvia Galdamez, Marcella Galdamez, Joanie Tuttle, Evan Velez, Travis Chase, Jaymeson Crochetiere, Matthew Kingsbury, Shaeleigh Willard, Maren Sawyer, and Bobby Petrie. Erika Bassett is the team’s assistant coach.