Fitchburg High Unified in Sports
By Chad Garner
Special to the Sentinel & Enterprise
FITCHBURG -- The faces of the student-athletes say it all.
The ear-to-ear smiles, the laughter, the applauses, the hugs and high-fives for everyone and the sheer joy of participating in athletics is exactly what makes Special Olympics Unified Sports so impactful to everyone involved.
At Fitchburg High School, the experience of participating in Unified Sports has been such a special experience to all the athletes, coaches and fans.
“We have been involved with Unified track since its inception as one of six or seven schools in the state that started the pilot program,” Fitchburg Athletic Director Ray Cosenza said. “We joined unified basketball the first year it started and it has been one of the most positive programs we offer. Attending a Unified basketball game is so uplifting and fun. It is great for our Unified athletes, our Unified partners and for our entire athletic department and school. It’s a wonderful program.”
According to the Special Olympics Massachusetts web site, “the Unified Sports program expands sports opportunities for participants seeking new challenges and dramatically increases their inclusion in the community, by helping to break down the barriers that have historically kept people with and without intellectual disabilities apart. At the same time, Unified Sports provides a valuable sports opportunity to individuals with intellectual disabilities who are not presently involved with Special Olympics, especially those with mild disabilities.”
Teacher Bryan Baxter took control of the head-coaching duties this season for Fitchburg High, and calls the experience “truly amazing.”
“All of the players have been incredible,” Baxter said.
Baxter described the emotions that overcome him during practices and games as “pure joy.”
“If you come to one of these games and you don’t smile, then your heart is like the Grinch’s -- three sizes too small,” Baxter said.
Fitchburg finished the season with a 3-2 record, suffering a three-point loss to Oakmont and a two-point loss to North Middlesex.
“The team has developed into a great little family,” Baxter said. “They all care for one another and it is a genuine care that goes far beyond the court. I hope that the athletes and partners work to build lasting relationships with one another.
“I am certain that the fans gain an appreciation for the idea of an inclusive environment. If all of our lives were as inclusive and tolerant as Special Olympic Unified Sports, the world would be a much better place. So I hope all of my athletes, partners and fans take that idea of inclusion with them and always practice it.”
Fitchburg lists 12 student-athletes as partners to go along with nine athletes.
The partners on Fitchburg’s team are Kiara Rosa, Ricardo Rosario, Emily Campbell, Emily Sobanek, Jake Thibeault, Alex McCloskey, De-Sean Watson, Anthony Martinez, Danielle Peterson, Zachary Scott, Ethan Chandler and Rachel Romero.
“Obviously they are caring individuals who simply get it,” Baxter said.
But the real stars of the game are the Fitchburg Unified athletes - Kayla and Katelyn Thilakoun, Ashley Campbell, Madison Rodriguez Glover, Cole Donelan, Justin Gonzalez, Javier Quinnones, Onis Ortiz and Samuel Ramos.
“The heart and character that is evident in all of the players -- both athletes and partners -- is really special,” Baxter said. “They all understand what they are part of and that they appreciate being part of it.”
The 5-foot-8 Donelan, a freshman, said he was afraid and scared at first because he had never played on a school basketball team before.But he quickly adjusted, developed into a strong scorer and made tons of friends along the way.
“I made new friendships with kids in my school and from other teams,” Donelan said.
He also enjoyed learning the game from coach Baxter.
“It was really good to have Mr. Baxter as my coach,” Donelan said. “He had me working hard and getting me to be my best.”
Baxter says that the entire process of coaching this team has been great, but two special moments really stand out.
“In the Oakmont game, Ashley Campbell got hit in the head by the ball,” Baxter said. “She ran to the corner and hid her face. The packed gym went silent. I went over to Ashley and told her that if she turned around and put her hands in the air that everyone would cheer and go wild. She did on the count of three and the place went crazy.
“The second would be Cole Donelan’s half-court, buzzer-beater at halftime of the Auburn game. The shot was great, but his reaction was priceless.”
During home games, FHS teachers Jack Scott and Paul DiGeronimo referee the Unified games. They rarely blow the whistle, but are never shy about pumping their fists or celebrating with the athletes on the floor.
“To be able to take part in the Unified Basketball Program is both humbling and rewarding,” DiGeronimo said.
Scott calls officiating these games “the highlight of my week.”
He added: “There’s so much positive energy in the gym and the kids have a blast. The sportsmanship has always been outstanding in these games. The kids are here for all the right reasons and they never disappoint in sportsmanship department.”
The faces of everyone involved in Unified Sports say it all.