There were a dozen or so missed shots before the first basket was made Wednesday night in a crosstown basketball game at Poudre High School.
By the end, though, nearly every player on the Rocky Mountain and Poudre teams scored at least once in the first unified basketball game of the season.
“We were having a really good time,” Rocky Mountain’s Liam Larson said. “I would say it was a blast.”
Larson and the Lobos scored more points than their Poudre counterparts.
But on this night, in this game, everybody was a winner.
The smiles on the faces of each of the athletes — 22 for Rocky Mountain and 19 for Poudre — proved it. High-fives, waves to parents in the stands and fist bumps with teammates followed just about every made basket, with players, coaches and fans associated with each team cheering as loudly for baskets by the opponents as they did for those scored by their team.
Poudre School District’s unified basketball programs are run in conjunction with Special Olympics Colorado and designed to promote social inclusion through sport by bringing together athletes with intellectual disabilities with unified partners without intellectual disabilities.
“I’ve grown up in sports, and I always love to get together with other friends,” said Audrey Biggerstaff, a partner on the Rocky Mountain team. “It’s really rewarding to see people that don’t always get to play getting to play as a family all together.”
Partners and athletes were each introduced individually before the game, the Poudre pep band played music during breaks in the action, and the Poudre High girls basketball team’s players and coaches were in the stands in the main gym cheering their classmates on during breaks from their practice in the school’s auxiliary gym.
Both schools had unified cheerleading squads. Poudre’s, in fact, grew in size during the game, with a few of the basketball players picking up silver and blue pompoms after being substituted out of the game and joining for cheers late in the first half and a halftime dance that brought the two cheerleading squads together.
This was high school basketball, played by athletes who don’t always have the same opportunities as their classmates.
“This is my first year,” Biggerstaff said. “It’s always fun to start with a crosstown rivalry, and this brought a lot of spirit to the team. It really connects us as a family.”
Poudre’s Alfie Chamberlain scored the first two baskets of the game. After his shots went in, everybody started scoring while shooting behind screens set by the partners, high school classmates who team up with mentally and physically challenged athletes to help them play the games.
The partners help the other players get into position to defend and shoot and, when they pull down a rebound, make sure they distribute the ball equitably to their teammates.
Larson was playing in his first unified basketball game ever.
But Poudre’s Logan Hitti-Frazen, who is in his fifth season, was having just as much fun as the rookies. He was determined to make sure everyone on his team got a chance to score a basket and after he scored his first basket, he worked with his team’s partners get the ball to those who hadn’t yet scored.
And after two halves with a 30-minute running clock and unusually forgiving referees, that was just about everybody on each team.
“The athletes want to get out there and play and shoot the ball, but the partners that are out there really value making sure everybody gets a turn, everybody gets a chance,” Poudre coach Wendi Miller said. “They’re learning how to play hard for their team while still being kind to the other team. So, it’s a big learning curve.”
Miller helped launch the PSD program eight years ago. She has seen tremendous growth, with schools sometimes having to play two 60-minute games against one another on a single night to give everyone a fair chance to participate.
Now the teams at each of Poudre School District’s four comprehensive high schools are playing full six- to eight game seasons on Wednesday nights from late January into early March. Along with the other city teams, Poudre also has games scheduled this season against Loveland, Brighton and Greeley West.
Some PSD middle schools have unified basketball programs now, too, giving even more athletes and partners the chance to team up in practices and games and form friendships that transcend the sport itself.
“I’m a gymnast and I run track, but this is a blast,” Biggerstaff said. “I honestly love it just as much.”
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Unified basketball grows in popularity in Fort Collins high schools