Huntsville beat Mena 33-24 in the Special Olympics Unified Sports Class 4A basketball finals last Thursday in Hot Springs.
The title game was held at the Bank OZK Arena inside the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Coach Zack Wiggins said the team wasn’t intimidated to play in the convention center. They were worried, however, about having just five players.
“They adapted to it really well,” he said of the team. “The only thing they worried about a little bit was there was only five of them. They were worried about having to play, to get through two 15-minute halves without getting tired. They battled through it, fought their way through it, and grounded it out.”
The Huntsville Unified team qualified for the finals by winning at the state tournament in Arkadelphia on Feb. 12, beating Hot Springs Lakeside and Centerpoint.
Team members are Creed Thomas, Wyatt Roach, Dylan Webber, Destny Calico, Josh Napolitano and Derek Boothe. Napolitano was unable to attend for medical reasons. Calico stepped into his place so the team would have five.
“She came through when we really, really needed somebody because you’ve got to have five to play. Without her, we couldn’t have pulled it off,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins coached the team at the finals. During the school year, coaches Matt Williams, Grant Myrick and Greg McCone also help.
The Unified cheer squad under the direction of Terese Hatfield was Abby Eaton, Jessica Stelly, Dena Birchfield, Jillian Box, Hannah Carter and Lacey Maupin.
The team received a send-off Wednesday at the high school, featuring fellow students, the band and cheerleaders.
This is Huntsville’s first year with a Unified team. The program has only been in northwest Arkansas for about five years. Wiggins said Lincoln is the only other school he knows of in the area that has a Unified team.
“The thing that makes Unified so rewarding is watching all five of our players work together as one,” Wiggins said.
Unified Sports is an “inclusive sports program that combines an approximately equal number of Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) on teams for training and competition,” according to specialolympicsarkansas.org.
During any Unified competition, a team cannot have more general education partners than special education players participating.
Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix said she had a special kind of pride for this athletic team.
“As with all of our students, I feel extreme pride in all of their accomplishments,” Enix wrote in an email. “Unified Sports is something I’m extremely proud that we do at HHS. It helps to eliminate barriers and build relationships that may have never been if it wasn’t for Unified Sports.”
Watching the team win the state tournament moved her both physically and emotionally.
“As far as the State Championship Co-Ed Basketball Team, I am tickled for them,” she wrote. “As I stood on the edge of the court waiting for the minutes to tick off the clock to end the game, I felt my insides shake a bit. When the team received their trophy, the pride swelled inside of me.”
Enix said “allergies” caused her eyes to fill with tears.
“As I loaded the news onto social media, that all-too familiar lump went into my throat and tears welled in my eyes – you know, allergies (wink, wink). I’m very proud and honored to know this group. They are amazing,” she said.
Wiggins said Huntsville’s Unified Sports team also competes in flag football, field hockey and bowling.
“This has been a year of growing pains,” he said. “We were kind of learning about it as we went. We were probably learning more about it than what we were able to teach. We don’t have it anywhere near where we want it. We know it’s going to take some time to build it, but our expectations are set pretty high.”
Wiggins said he’s anxious to see the program expand at Huntsville High School.
“We’re hoping that this is something that’s going to explode ... winning a state championship, it’s brought some attention to the fact that there is a Unified program. A lot of people don’t understand what Unified is or didn’t know that we had it,” he said.
Huntsville being one of the first schools in the area to have a Unified team is something to proud of, Wiggins said.
“We’re cutting edge,” he said.
The state is hoping more schools will establish Unified teams.
“For us to have the honor of being at the forefront of that and kind of be trailblazers and pioneers [is special],” he said. “It’s stressful, it’s chaotic. [It] feels like you’re drinking water through a fire hose at times, but how awesome is that to be at the front?”
Wiggins said the HHS administration has played a key role in the program.
“The administration’s been awesome. [They’re] highly supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish. The school district’s highly behind us,” he said.
Any student interested in participating in the Unified Sports team can join the Unified Club, which serves as a feeder program to the daily class and sporting events.
“We’re excited about growing and building,” Wiggins said.
He said the Arkansas Activities Association has backed Unified Sports.
“The hardware that we won down there is the exact same. It’s the real deal, the same hardware that all the other teams down there are hoping to win,” he said.
Wiggins said being a part of the program is special.
“We’re honored and privileged,” he said. “It goes without saying it’s always an honor and a privilege to represent Huntsville, the community and the school. That’s something that we preach.”