Oxford High School played Watertown Thursday in a home basketball game that finished with a tie score of 41 apiece at the end of regulation. But the players didn't get ready for overtime or discuss another way to break the tie. Instead, they lined up, shook hands and congratulated each other before going home with a smile on their faces.
The game isn't about winning or losing for members of the Oxford High School Unified Sports team - although they try hard to play as well as they can. It's about giving students of all abilities the opportunity to be part of a team, learn the values of sport and just have a good time.
This is the first year Oxford has had a Unified Sports program, and 22 students from a variety of peer groups are thriving under the direction of physical education teacher and coach Jennifer LaCapra. Unified Sports is a registered program of Special Olympics that combines approximately equal numbers of athletes with and without intellectual disability on sports teams for training and competition, according to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference's website. All Unified Sports players, both athletes and special partners, are of similar age and matched sport skill ability, the website states. Unified Sports teams are placed in competitive divisions based on their skill abilities, and range from training divisions (with a skill-learning focus) to high level competition, according to the CIAC.
"It's a great way to give kids an opportunity to be part of a team," LaCapra said.
The team participated in soccer in the fall and is playing basketball in the winter. Thursday marked the team's third basketball game; the players also have a couple tournaments in March. In the spring, the team will play volleyball and track and field.
Unified Sports isn't just fun and games, though. In Oxford, it's also a class that students take for credit. The class meets four times a week during first period and practice, discuss strategy and learn the games they play. LaCapra said there are about 90 Unified Sports programs in Connecticut.
The Oxford team has football stars, basketball players, soccer players and students who play a variety of sports. They serve as peer mentors for their teammates.
Parent Mike Gamauf said he loves the program.
"This is so great for my son (Buddy)," he said. "He really appreciates being part of a team. He's not really a very athletic kid. But this has brought out aspects that he never would have experienced without this type of program: Being part of a team; playing against other schools; riding the bus to games. ...I'm very happy with every aspect of this, especially the coaches and also the peer models, who are great. I give them a lot of credit."
Gamauf also looked around the bleechers and said he was pleased to see not only parents, but friends of the students, many of whom were cheering. Some even made signs for their classmates that they hung in the gym.
LaCapra coaches with her sister, math teacher Kim Behr, as well as Sue Mole and Cathie Prowe, paraprofessionals who help the team.
The team started over the summer when LaCapra asked Principal Frank Savo if they could start a team. Savo thought it was a great idea and wanted to make it a class, as well.
"I was beyond excited; being able to see the kids four times a week really allows us to work on not only different sports skills, but more importantly truly allows us to develop a team bond," she said. "Since September, our team spirit and togetherness has become immeasurable. My sister and I feel lucky to be able to work with these student-athletes. They are all amazing kids, and we love being able to be a part of such a wonderful teaching a coaching experience."
It appears that the students feel the same way. LaCapra said she asked them recently to write an essay on what they have gotten out of the program so far. "A lot of them mentioned how much of a team they feel and how it is different than any other team they've been on," she said.
To see how students feel about the program, watch our quick video attached to this article.