AYER – Let no obstacle stand in the way of your dreams. Earlier this week inside the Ayer-Shirley Regional High School Gym, the Unified Basketball teams from Ayer-Shirley and Lunenburg put the finishing touches on the 2021 fall season. The two teams put on a show for those in attendance and while the score may have been in favor of Ayer-Shirley at the final buzzer, nobody walked off the floor defeated. Ayer-Shirley Regional School District Athletic Director Steve Kendall shared his thoughts on the school’s Unified sports program. “Unified sports are one of the best things we do at the school,” said Kendall. “Everybody comes in and has fun. Nobody is upset. We have kids and coaches coming together and working together. Sometimes kids get involved accidentally and they don’t know what to expect. They usually end up loving it. We are really happy to be able to play games this year because last year we couldn’t do so.” According to the Special Olympics Massachusetts website, Unified Sports brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team. Originally 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. A 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. 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. “It’s such a great community event,” said Kendall. “It’s great for the schools involved and the kids really have a lot of fun.” This year, the Ayer-Shirley team was head coached by Corey Phillips, who replaced last year’s head coach Nate Diffin. In addition to coaching the Unified team this season, Phillips will be the new girls’ varsity head basketball coach when the season begins the Monday following Thanksgiving. “It was an amazing experience being able to coach this group,” said Phillips. “I remember coming into the first practice and I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know what kind of experience these kids had. We tried to focus on the teamwork aspect and make this a lot of fun for the kids.” Tuesday’s contest was broken down into two 20-minute halves. The clock was running time with both squads substituting players frequently so that all players had the opportunity to see action on the court. The hosts opened an early lead thanks to some big buckets by Pippi Steeman and Nick Dutton. The Panthers built a 39-20 halftime lead and never relinquished it in the second half as they picked up a 71-48 win.
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