By Michael James LeClair
If you want something bad enough, let nothing stand in your way.
Now in its second year, the Nashoba Regional Unified Basketball program is giving student-athletes of varying abilities the opportunity to hit the hardwood for fun, friendship, skill development and exercise.
Special Olympics Mass. defines Unified Sports as bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team.
Originally founded in Massachusetts, Unified sports has become an important addition to Special Olympics internationally and has helped further its mission, by improving self-esteem, fostering acceptance and creating new friendships among its participants.
Unified sports provide a valuable opportunity to individuals with intellectual disabilities who are not presently involved with Special Olympics, especially those with mild disabilities. Nashoba athletic director Tania Rich talked about giving these young men and women a chance to be a part of a team despite the challenges of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are very excited to be able to offer a Unified Basketball program during this challenging time. As with all sports this year, Unified Basketball looks different than previous years,” said Rich on Thursday. “We are sponsoring a ‘Skills and Drills’ developmental season this year due to COVID. However, we have an amazing group of students in our program.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Nashoba Regional secondary gym was the host as 22 student-athletes took to the hardwood.
Mike Mercuri, who is the Nashoba boys’ varsity basketball head coach during the winter season, has stepped into the role of Nashoba Unified Basketball head coach this season. Mercuri replaces Beth McNamara at the helm for the 2021 Fall 2 sports season. During Thursday afternoon’s team practice, Mercuri shared his excitement to be a part of the program.
“Tania Rich asked if I would like to get involved and I told her absolutely,” said Mercuri, following Thursday’s action inside the gym. “I love it. Getting a chance to work with these kids is incredible. Watching these kids having fun, having a blast is what this is all about. To be able to come out here and give them a little excitement is rewarding.”
“Coach Mike Mercuri brings the enthusiasm and knowledge to make practice fun for everyone,” said Rich. “It’s definitely a positive and fun environment.”
Nashoba athlete Sydney Meininger is a member of the Nashoba Transitions program and is in her second year playing Unified basketball at Nashoba.
“Even though we can’t play games, it’s still fun to be able to come out here and do skills and drills,” said Meininger. “It hasn’t been that hard playing with a mask on; honestly, we’ve gotten used to it.”
Fellow Nashoba athlete Jason Fleck is also a member of the Transitions program. “I’m building my skills and having a lot of fun,” said Fleck. “I really like to shoot the ball and try to make a basket.”
Originally scheduled to be played during the fall sports season, Unified Basketball was pushed back to the fall 2 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with other traditional fall sports like football, girls’ volleyball, cheerleading and indoor track.
This year marks the second year for the Nashoba Regional Unified Basketball program. Nashoba’s inaugural season was back in the fall of 2019.
“I’m really happy to be back playing again. I haven’t had the chance to practice my three-point shots since last year so it’s great to be back out here so I can shoot again,” said Shane Hayao. “COVID has made it tough but we’re really excited to be back playing again.”
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, the Nashoba Unified Basketball student athletes will not have the opportunity to play games against other area schools this season. Instead, the Nashoba team will practice twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday and devote a portion of the practice time to drill work before ending each session with an intersquad scrimmage.
“I’m having fun. My favorite part is being able to bounce the basketball and work on dribbling,” said Sarah Prigmore, a member of the Nashoba PACE program. “I’ve been playing for three years and I really like it.”
Six student athletes from the Nashoba Transition program were on the court Thursday afternoon working on their skills and drills with several Nashoba buddy athletes, including senior Jill Payne.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s the second year we’ve done this and it’s really special to be a part of this,” said Payne, a standout on the Nashoba varsity girls’ basketball team during the winter season. “It’s all about having fun and building a relationship. With everything that’s been going on this year, it’s a great chance to get these kids out here and create a positive experience.”
Payne, like the rest of the group on Thursday, was all smiles having the chance to work with the team.
Nashoba’s Eian McGregor and Josh Tadmore couldn’t contain their excitement having the chance to compete and make some new friends.
“This is my first year playing on this team and it’s been great,” said McGregor. “I like the school, the teachers and all my teammates here. Everyone is very friendly here and making this a good time.”
Tadmore was thrilled at the chance to start playing again. “It’s good to be back. I’ve been doing remote learning but now that I’m back in basketball I get a chance to see everyone,” said Tadmore. “Getting to see old friends and even make some new friends. In fact, making new friends really rocks.”