Athletes from New Paltz’s teams, coaches and families gathered in the Athletic and Wellness Center on Sunday, April 2, to participate in the fifth-annual Special Olympics Unified Basketball Tournament hosted by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).
This year, 12 teams competed in the unified tournament within three divisions, allowing up to four teams to match up at the same time. The games were held in Elting Gym and the Hawk Center.
In the morning, participants were placed into teams in their respective divisions pairing and were sent off to the courts, where families and athletes were there to cheer them on.
Each game consisted of four eight-minute quarters, with the winner advancing to the next round in their division. At the conclusion of the event, each team was awarded with either a gold, silver or bronze medal.
Third-year men’s basketball guard Paddy Parr acted as one of the referees during the event in his first time participating in the Unified Special Olympics tournament.
“It’s nice to help out for the community,” Parr said. “It’s good to help out the people and support the athletes. I’ve never been a part of something like this, so it’s always nice to go out and be able to make a difference.”
This is the fifth time student-athletes have been paired with the Special Olympians, a concept promoted by Project Unify.
Project Unify is an education and sports-based strategy powered by an engaged youth community that increases athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities, while creating communities of acceptance for all.
Stacey Orzell, who coached the Thunderbolts teams that participated in the day-long event, came out with her husband Bryan to support their sons, Eric and Jay.
“We’re especially grateful for today being a unified opportunity,” she said. “It’s like a community, and with all of the teams participating, it makes it great to be a part of something that ripples out.”
The parents noted a special memory of their 10-year-old son Eric, who is diagnosed with autism, as the event began.
“Eric woke up that morning determined to score a basket,” Stacey Orzell said. “He played a game last week at Marist College and felt upset that he didn’t score. His mindset was ‘They’re going to pass me the ball and I’m going to score,’ and during the morning pairing he scored his first basket. As a mom, I can go home today knowing that Eric scored a basket.”
Brendon Kesse, 30, who played in the Special Olympics with the Ulster Tigers team, mentioned that the high fives, smiles and cheers from the crowd and team benches had a special meaning to the players.
“My favorite part of the event is playing with all of these athletes and having a good time,” Keese said after his final game of the day. “All the friends and family members here have made this event what it’s supposed to be.”
Brian Orzell, who also attended the Special Olympics event hosted by SAAC for the first time, thought the encouragement and the success of the athletes made the event enjoyable for everyone involved.
“I’m new to this event,” he said. “But what I picked up right away is that it’s an opportunity to do things that normally people with disabilities may not be able to do. They’re encouraged to play on a team. Just to see not only your kids, but all of the other athletes succeed in this event is great to see.”