FITCHBURG – The Fitchburg Unified Basketball team opened its 2023 season by welcoming nearby Lunenburg High School to the Doug Grutchfield Field House on Thursday afternoon.
On a day where the final score meant very little, the athletes from Fitchburg and Lunenburg showed sportsmanship and played with teamwork that would make any coach proud. At the end of the day, the visitors from Lunenburg came away with a 58-45 victory.
“Unified athletics is something I’ve been involved with for a long time and I just absolutely love the relationships you build with the athletes and the partners,” said Fitchburg head coach Brian Baxter, now in his fifth season at the helm. “Our first practice we only had two kids so our numbers have grown since then. We lost 18 athletes from last year’s team with graduation so we have a lot of new faces this season, it’s a brand-new team. We scored 45 points today; not bad for our first game.”
Unified Sports brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team, according to the Special Olympics website.
Founded in Massachusetts, Unified Sports has become an important addition to Special Olympics internationally and has helped further its mission, by improving self-esteem, fostering acceptance, and creating new friendships among its participants. The primary goal of Unified Sports is to equalize the ability level of Special Olympics athletes with their partners and to promote inclusion through team practice and competition.
Fitchburg assistant coach Cindy Donelan is the school’s liaison for Special Olympics Massachusetts. She is also the school’s unified track head coach and in her first season assisting Baxter on the basketball court.
“I coach unified track and was recently brought in to help coach unified basketball. I have a son with special needs who is a part of the unified athletic programs,” said Donelan. “It’s been a love of mine to be able to combine my passion of serving people with different abilities. Joining and helping with basketball was the natural progression. I know a lot of these kids, I work with them every day within the school It’s a great experience.”
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.
“I was familiar with unified sports and its growth in the last handful of years and to me, it’s a no brainer. I had the opportunity as a softball umpire to work Special Olympics Massachusetts before the idea of unified came to the high school level and I loved being a part of it,” said Fitchburg Public Schools Athletic Director Todd Robbins. “It’s an absolute win-win at the high school level. It makes perfect sense and it’s so incredibly rewarding for both the athletes and their partners.”
On Thursday, Fitchburg dressed nine players for its battle with Lunenburg. Representing the Red and Gray were Chance Chiv, Pedro DeCastro, Tomas Fernandez, Brian Clapper, Andrew Gutierrez, Ana Jimenez-Rodriguez, Linthi Lieu, Sam Lussier and Vinnie Nguyen.
The Red Raiders play a four-game schedule this season with two games at home and two games on the road. Tthe Red Raiders travel to Nashoba Regional High School to take on the Wolves at 3:30 p.m. next Thursday.
Fitchburg will host an end-of-season Unified Basketball Jamboree on Nov. 8 inside the Doug Grutchfield Field House with several of the area’s unified basketball programs scheduled to participate.