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South Valley Riverton Journal

Riverton unified basketball catalyst for inclusion, friendship

Mar 31, 2023 09:37AM ● By Julie Slama

First Lady Abby Cox awards ribbon to Riverton High unified student-athletes at the regional tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Riverton High junior Lettie Hendricks participates on her school’s unified soccer and track teams, but unified basketball is her favorite.

“It’s just the best,” she said. “I like shooting (baskets). It’s good exercise. We practice a lot as a team. I love my team.”

She was warming up with her teammates, including senior Marinn Cahoon, at a regional unified basketball tournament held in early March.

“We’ve been practicing for months and they’re learning so much,” she said. “They’re excited and love basketball. As partners, we help them learn, but we’re really friends and there to support each other.”

In unified basketball, teams have five players on the court—three athletes and two unified partners. Teams play against other squads of the same ability in two eight-minute halves.  Supported by Special Olympics and the Utah High School Activities Association, unified sports has both a competitive and a player development level, the latter which provides more of a cooperative environment with partners being teammates and mentors.  

UHSAA referee Paul Madsen said he appreciates unified basketball.

“There’s great sportsmanship,” he said. “Everyone is helping each other. It’s wonderful to see.” 

In Utah, involvement in unified high school basketball has skyrocketed. This year, there were the most teams in its history competing to play at state—73 teams competed for 32 state seeds, said Courtnie Worthen, Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools manager.

Riverton had two teams compete at regionals. One team placed third, and the other, fourth. 

At the March 8 state unified basketball tournament, there were smiles and cheers as Riverton beat Layton High to take seventh place in its division. 

In addition, Jordan School District was honored with the District of the Year Award for Unified Sports in Utah. 

“I love cheering for our athletes; they make us proud and represent us so well,” said Jordan Education Foundation President Dawn Ramsey, who along with JEF Executive Director Mike Haynes and Jordan District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey accepted the award. “Unified Sports is an incredible program and Jordan District has been a leader in the state as the first to implement a program districtwide. Special Olympics Utah, First Lady Abby Cox with her Show Up initiative, and the Jordan Education Foundation have been wonderful partners in supporting this effort.”

Administrators from several school districts and educational foundations joined the First Lady and Gov. Spencer Cox to support the competition that was held at Weber State University.

Abby Cox said she was proud of everyone in the gym.

“Utah, as a state—we are part of the inclusion revolution,” she told them.

Unified sports engage students with and without intellectual disabilities on the same sports teams, leading to not only sports skills development and competition, but also inclusion and friendship, Worthen said.

“Unified sports provides social inclusion opportunities for all teammates to build friendships on- and off-the-court,” she said. “The teammates challenge each other to improve their skills and fitness and at the same time, increase positive attitudes and establish friendships and provide a model of inclusion for the entire school community.”

Unified sports, Worthen said, is included in the Unified Champion Schools model, where a unified team is supported by the entire school and there is inclusive youth leadership and whole school engagement.

“With schools that embrace the Unified Champion Schools model, they create communities where all students feel welcome and are included in all school activities and opportunities. Students feel socially and emotionally secure, they’re more engaged in the school and feel supported, and are respected,” she said. “It changes school climates.”