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Unified effort; T-Hawks rally around special set of athletes.

Byline: Mike Richard

NORTHBORO -- Will dribbles deftly with one-hand past a defender before snapping a nifty bounce pass to Rachel. She stops at the foul line and finds Jarret posting up underneath for an easy layup.

Teammates Clara and Nathaniel converge and the quintet exchanges high-fives and happiness all around.

This was just one of the many scenes observed any Thursday afternoon at Algonquin Regional High School, as the Unified Basketball Program brings the game to kids who just love it.

Thanks to the efforts of varsity boys coach Brian Doherty, varsity girls coach Melissa Fustino and Best Buddies coordinator Kevin Hausmann, with a big assist to Tomahawk varsity players, this pilot program got off the ground this winter.

Haussman, who is a science teacher at the high school and runs the Unified track team in the spring, was approached by Doherty in the fall with the idea of setting up the basketball program.

"He said, 'I've really got this neat idea to maybe continue what you're doing,' '' Haussman said. "He said he wanted to start a Unified Basketball program and have his kids and the girls' players become mentor-teammates.''

Three years ago, former Algonquin athletic director Fran Whitten learned of a partnership that the Mid-Wach League started with Special Olympics to create Project Unify, a nationwide Special Olympics initiative to bring inclusive sports into the high school.

"It's a place where all athletes have an appropriate place to compete and grow, and still represent their school,'' said Hausmann. "We began with Unified Track with about 15 to 20 schools statewide.''

Doherty has hopes that this pilot season, which now consists of weekly clinics, could grow to the point where other Mid-Wach or Central Mass. basketball teams and schools could also get involved and perhaps set up a league.

"There are varying levels and participants and the kids work with each different level, teaching them the basic skills,'' he said. "I'm a firm believer that you give back and I can tell you that my kids love it and it feels good. It's great to play basketball and be successful, but you still have to do other things, and it's also great for the school.''

Many of the current Algonquin basketball players have chipped in to share their love of the sport with other students of the high school.

"It's been great to give back to the kids who enjoy basketball, but may not have been able to play as much as we have,'' said Joe Wallace, a junior playing with the Tomahawks. "Basketball's a fun sport and the smiles and laughs with everyone just having a good time is awesome.''

Senior Joe Egizi agreed, "I think it's great to see how much these kids love the game and how much our team really loves the game, as well,'' he said. "Just to share that love and seeing them smile, it really makes everyone involved happy, including us as coaches.''

Most Thursday afternoon sessions last about 45 minutes, stressing the teaching of some of the games's simpler skills.

After breaking into stations by ability, the boys and girls work together. From a dribbling and passing station, they move to a shooting station.

"It usually depends on the clientele we have that day,'' Doherty said. "We try to teach the simple fundamental skills and as soon as they get that, we show them how we're going to incorporate that on the court.''

While the skill level may differ from player to player, the fundamentals of the game are taught the same way to each of the players.

"Some kids have more skills than others, but we split them up into groups and each week we try to amp it up a little more,'' Doherty said. "Our ultimate goal is to get them into competition and maybe get them to play at halftime of one of our games coming up.''

And all of the coaches agree that the key to the program it to make those students realize that they are athletes, too.

"Here we have true coaches and we have varsity-level athletes who have played multiple years of Special Olympics,'' Hausmann said. "They've played some rec basketball and now they want to go to the next level.''

Doherty sees both the Unified athletes and his own athletes benefitting from the program, especially when the table turn and his players become the coaches.

"It teaches our (varsity) kids life skills and we like to see them doing things outside the court,'' he said. "I like it because it puts the kids in my position. It's like, 'OK, you teach, now' and they get a chance to see what (coaching's) all about.''

Fustino, the girls' basketball coach, agreed.

"It's great for our girls as a way to give back to the kids and to get our name out there,'' she said. "It's good for our girls and it helps them learn the whole coaching process.''

While this grassroots program may be in its infancy stages, Doherty hopes to see it get off the ground at Algonquin where it can branch out to other schools across Central Mass.

"Next year we'd like to set up a Unified Mid-Wach League, or get out to other schools and show them how we do it,'' he said.

Other coaches or schools in Central Mass. who either have a similar program, or who would like to pursue one are asked to contact Doherty at Algonquin.

Contact Mike Richard at mikerichard0725@gmail.com.

Follow him on Twitter @tgsports
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Richard, Mike
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 16, 2015
Words:919
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