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Riverhead to begin Unified Sports hoops team to create new opportunity for special ed and general ed students

A competitive basketball program coming to Riverhead High School will “bridge the gap” between special education and general education students, according to Brian Sacks, the district’s director of health, physical education and athletics. 

Unified basketball, a co-ed league, will integrate intellectually challenged and general education student-athletes from Riverhead High School on the court beginning in March. 

Unified Sports created the inclusive program, which unites Special Olympics athletes and partners as teammates for training and competition. Section XI, the governing body for high school sports in Suffolk County, adopted the program in 2017.

Mr. Sacks said unified basketball league has “grown exponentially in the last year” and roughly 30 schools are now participating in the program, up from 17 the previous year.

“I think everyone wanted to see what it was like and how it was run,” he said. “Now, everyone is jumping on board, embracing it with open arms.”

Mr. Sacks said he discovered the program at a Section XI meeting last year, but it was too late to get the district involved due to budget restrictions. He pitched the concept to district administrators last spring, he said.

“That’s when I said let’s sit down, let’s figure this out, let’s write up a proposal to do everything we can do to get this here,” Mr. Sacks said. 

Each team must follow certain Section XI criteria to participate in the program: At least two intellectually challenged players must be on the court for each team at all times. Students qualify to compete in six games against other Section XI schools in May after they participate in at least six practices. 

“What this is trying to do is have special education and general education students come together, participate together and have a mentor program within it — really allow the school to see all of the great students that we have in a different light,” Mr. Sacks said.

The program does not accept athletes who have participated in varsity or junior varsity sports programs at the high school, Mr. Sacks said. The league offers the students who are unable to join those teams the opportunity to participate in a competitive setting and make their way to the playoffs. 

Three Riverhead staff members will supervise the team: Tim Paige, who runs a special education noncompetitive sports club, Athletes for All; varsity wrestling coach and special education teacher Jake Benedetto; and former soccer coach and teacher Brian Cunningham.

That trio is still reviewing the details of forming the team to ensure they appropriately offer the program, Mr. Sacks said. 

School board president Greg Meyer recognized the efforts of Mr. Sacks, who brought the program together.

“It’s true competition — not just a club,” Mr. Meyer said. “It’s sanctioned, we’ll compete against other schools similar to regular programs … having an opportunity like this is awesome.”

The program will likely be offered every spring because other teams occupy the high school gym in the winter season, Mr. Sacks said. 

In the future, he hopes to bring other unified sports to the school — bowling and cross country are on the horizon, he said.

“[This program is] a way for everybody in our school community to be excited to rally around students that they normally wouldn’t see in this atmosphere,” Mr. Sacks said.

Riverhead Little League recently announced a plan to begin a similar program for youth baseball and softball players. Officials hope to begin a Challenger Division this year that will allow students from Riverhead and neighboring districts to participate in a competitive atmosphere. The adaptive baseball program was founded in 1989 and will be open for individuals with physical and intellectual challenges.