In a recent game against Mohonasen, the young men and women of the Cohoes unified basketball team put on a show for the family and friends watching from the stands. The players cheered for their teammates, smiled and laughed as they dribbled down the court, and had no fear in their attempts to launch the ball toward the basket.
While the Tigers ended up losing the game, like all but one of the games they played this year, they still felt like winners. From learning how to be a member of a team and represent their school throughout the region, to learning good sportsmanship and gaining lasting friendships, the unified basketball program in Cohoes has been wildly beneficial for the players.
Unified sports programs combine students with and without intellectual disabilities on one team for training and competition. The idea to blend students with and without special needs began in 2008 with the Special Olympics. In 2014, Special Olympics New York partnered with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) and introduced the first unified basketball team at Columbia High School in East Greenbush.
Last year, thanks to a grant to offset start-up expenses, Cohoes formed its own unified basketball team. Now, with every game the team plays, interest grows.
Cohoes High School Junior Reggie Poulin, perhaps most well-known for his outstanding performance and record-setting matches on the wrestling mat, is a member of the team.
“Unified sports gives an opportunity to the kids in special education programs by showing them what it is like to be a part of a team and to have fun,” said Poulin. “I joined the unified basketball team here in Cohoes because I wanted to try and make a difference and help the kids out that didn’t really grasp the concept of basketball because it can be pretty difficult.”
Cohoes High School English teacher and Coach Drake Galarneau has found the program rewarding in a number of ways, and not just for the players.
“[The students] all have their own little celebrations and dances, and when I see that I can’t help but smile,” he explained. “I also have loved seeing the athletes’ families come to the games and the look on their faces when their child scores.”
He knows that the families of his players are unique in that they have endured hardships many in the community cannot fathom, so to see them smile, laugh and jump up excitedly when their child scores is incredibly rewarding. A unified basketball player subs out
“That feeling is what makes sports so great and to have these students and their families able to experience those moments when ordinarily they might not have…it’s what this program is all about,” he added.
The rules and how the game is played in the unified basketball program are a bit different and being a new team meant a learning process for everyone on the Cohoes team.
“I think that challenge has made us stronger as a team, though, because we are all learning at the same pace and we always try to have fun, even if things aren’t going our way,” said Coach Galarneau.
Mr. Galarneau hopes to continue coaching next year, if circumstances allow. His players hope he does, too.
“I would like to thank Mr. Galarneau for giving me the opportunity to play with the team,” said Poulin. “After every game he would thank me, and I would always tell him that it was unnecessary to thank me because I loved doing it and it was fun. I loved playing with all of the kids on the team.”
Mr. Galarneau’s patience, and his commitment to fairness amongst his players throughout the season, were often on display during the game. He was calm with his encouragement and positive guidance, and was quick with one-on-one coaching and support during times of duress.
“Whether we won or lost during the season the kids on the team always had a smile on their faces, which shows me that I did my job well,” said Poulin. “By far, my favorite thing about the season was the way the kids played. They always tried their hardest whether we were winning or losing, and there wasn’t one game that somebody left without being a little tired, even myself.”
While the 2017 season has ended, the basketball team will be back on the court next year. Coach Galarneau hopes the community will join in the fun by coming out for a game.