H-F's Unified Basketball team wins state title for second time

  The Homewood-Flossmoor High School unified
  basketball team, bringing together regular and
  special education students, shows off the IHSA
  state trophy it won March 17. It was the team's
  second state title.
(Provided photo)
It’s the unified team of special education and regular students, but coaches say that name is also emblematic of how students at Homewood-Flossmoor High School have worked together to make the sport of basketball a winning endeavor for all — not once, but twice.
H-F organized its first unified basketball team in 2017 under the auspices of the Illinois High School Association. Special Olympics has been hosting sporting events, but 2017 was the first year IHSA added Unified to the roster of sanctioned team sports.
H-F came home with the state trophy from that first-ever basketball competition. H-F repeated the feat this year, winning the state title March 17 in competition in Peoria.
“It’s really cool, especially with the unified movement to include all athletes, of students with a disability and regular education students. To see that growth and that friendship, how they develop as a team together, it’s really exciting. Everybody’s just included,” said special education teacher and unified coach Brian McLaughlin.
The rules specify the team on the floor includes three special education students paired with two regular education students, who are identified as partners.
“Last year when we played for the first time it was feeling each other out,” McLaughlin said.  “Now, after a full season together and knowing what to expect this season the friendships grew. The camaraderie with the team was really impacted by that first season.”
McLaughlin said he saw the team jell on a weekly basis as players would greet each other in the hallways, recognize one another during passing periods and interact at lunch. 
McLaughlin explained there are variant scales in special education and the unified team players have fairly high abilities.
“Our athletes that are part of our team, they love the game of basketball. They watch it. They talk about it a lot, so they understand and grasp the concepts of basketball. They’re well aware of competing and wanting to do well and being a positive team mate with each other,” he said.
David Dore, another special education teacher and unified coach, said the program is separate from physical education classes. It’s an after school activity, like H-F’s Vikings basketball team, although the Unified team practices just once a week.
“We try to have as typical of a high school sporting experience as possible,” Dore said. The team played eight competitive games with other unified teams around the Chicago area before going on for the state title.
Dore has coached Special Olympics teams for 11 years, and he said junior high schools have had unified teams for awhile. He is glad H-F agreed to be one of the first to start a high school program. Other schools are now following H-F’s lead.

“I’ve seen this positive effect on schools around us so competition is getting much stronger and more and more students are accessing it,” Dore said. 
Recruiting team players hasn’t been a problem. This past season the team had seven athletes and six partners on the H-F roster. Team members were Antonio Brown, Tyron Carr, Patrice Desronvil, Judah Epperson, Jalen Fair, Maurey Garrett, Jaeon Golston, Joseph Incardella, Caleb Izenbart, Jorge Santos, Tyler Schlaffer, Kobe Sharp and Ward Watson, Jr. 
Dore said the escort it received from the Flossmoor Fire Department, lights flashing and sirens blaring, when it returned home with the trophy especially excited the team.
“It’s really fun to see the jubilation the students have when they come home. It’s such a big deal for us and I think any time you’re doing something as a sport or a club you feel like it’s in isolation and then all of a sudden you come home and you see the community cares, too,” Dore said. “It’s a very valued experience.”
The coaches expect to lose just one player from the team next school year, so Dore says he’s hoping H-F gets a three-peat opportunity.

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