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Unified basketball competition a first for the Falcons

NORWICH — As Tyler Babonas’ shot banked off the backboard and into the net, his reaction could be summed up in two words:

Sheer joy.

Babonas repeatedly leaped into the air, his arms raised over his head, beaming with excitement as he received high fives from his teammates.

He hadn’t realized it, but Babonas was the first to score a point for Fitch High School in a Unified Sports competition.

The Falcons first venture into any Unified Sports competition came at the Eastern Connecticut Conference Unified Basketball Tournament held on March 10 at Norwich Free Academy.

Unified Sports places athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on teams for the chance to compete for their schools. The Fitch team consisted of eight athletes with intellectual disabilities and eight student partners from the regular education population.

“I tried my best; we work as a team, and we endure,” Babonas said afterward. “We’ve got good athletes and a good team; I feel good right now.

“It’s just to have fun, dude, just to have fun.”

Marc Peluso, a special education teacher and Fitch baseball head coach, served as the Unified team coach, assisted by special education teacher Mike Aldrich and art teacher Christina Scala.

“A lot times for these kids, the bell rings at 2:07, and they go home and that’s it,” Peluso said. “This gives them an opportunity to be part of a team in addition to interacting with regular ed students. They are starting to build relationships; not just saying ‘hi’ in the hall but having real conversations. They build a rapport with kids in the building, and the regular ed students know about the team and offer support.”

According to Lou Pear, director of Unified Sports for the Connecticut Association of Schools, the state’s Pathway program creates opportunities from preschool through high school in soccer, basketball, track and field, volleyball and bowling at the varsity level.

“Students who may not have had an opportunity to participate in a varsity sport now wear the uniform of their school and ride on the team bus just like any other athlete,” Pear said. “The athletes benefit from the compassion and understanding of the partners, and the disability child is teaching partners a lot of life lessons.”

Fitch students Lisa Chan and Odessa Glaza were catalysts for the creation of the Unified team. The two were partners on a Special Olympics volleyball team through the town of Groton Parks and Recreation, a department nationally recognized for its programs for individuals with disabilities.

“Special Olympics was such a great experience; everyone was cheering for everyone, which is a novel idea; no one really does that,” Glaza said. “So we presented the idea for a Unified team to the student leadership group; it seemed like every school around us had a team and we didn’t.”

A series of discussions followed among students, Pear; Eileen Cicchese, Parks and Recreation Special Olympics program supervisor; Joe Arcarese, school principal, and Marc Romano, Fitch athletic director.

“As we started talking about having a Unified Sports team, a lot of other people had also been thinking about it, and it made sense to start it now; it all fell into place,” Chan said.

Chan and Glaza raised a simple but powerful question during the discussions.

“These two dynamic students asked, ‘Why not us?,’” Pear said. “Joe was on board, and said Fitch will have a team soon, and here they are.”

The Falcons roster comprised eight athletes and eight partners broken into two teams. The Falcons played well in a tournament featuring 13 ECC schools, 27 teams and approximately 270 athletes.

It was the kind of competition where points really didn’t matter.

“It’s a wonderful thing for kids with disabilities to participate, and the partners love it,” said Arcarese. “I’m for all kids; you can’t help but say yes to this, especially when you see the smiles on their faces.”

Cheerleaders show poise, qualify for New Englands

Fitch High School’s cheerleaders scored enough points to finish among the top three at last Saturday’s Connecticut Cheerleading Championships, but it was their ability to overcome adversity that led them to a berth at Saturday’s New England Interscholastic Spirit Championship at Lawrence High School (Mass.).

The Falcons overcame a fall while completing a pyramid near the end of their performance in the Coed Division, quickly regrouping to finish their routine.

“It was one of the biggest falls I’ve seen them make,” said coach Melissa Robinson. “When teams have a fall like that, they usually start crying and falling apart emotionally. They didn’t; they finished strong, and the judges commented on their ability to come back.”

The routine had been flawless until the mishap, helping Fitch overcome the lower score and penalty points resulting from the fall.

When the competition was over, the Falcons had 147.7 points to finish as second runner-up behind Stamford (166.5) and Staples (152). The top three schools from each division qualified for New Englands.

It will be the first time Fitch will compete at New Englands since 2008. The Falcons placed third at the Class L that year; the program’s last state title came at the 2005 Class LL Championship.

“We don’t really know what we are up against, but we are hoping to hit a perfect routine,” Robinson said. “They are perfectionists and over-achievers. Five of them came up to me at practice the other day and said they wanted to add three news skills; they want to be the best and redeem themselves.”

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