The Ewing High School unified basketball team modeled the goal of Unified Sports on its way to a state championship win.
The Blue Devils did well with the X’s and O’s, but something more made the difference. They overcame every obstacle and stuck together to hold off defending champion Moorestown, 36-31, for the NJSIAA state crown on March 17 at Rutgers.
“When they got knocked down, they were picking each other up,” said Ewing coach Katlin Doolan. “Not every team we saw was doing that.”
Unified Sports were created to bring athletes of all abilities together, and the Blue Devils lived it start to finish this season. Doolan credits the championship to Ewing’s strengths.
“Pretty much their enthusiasm and the communication and acceptance from day one between athletes and partners,” she said. “They were all the same playing field. You couldn’t tell from the way they socialized any difference between them. They were unified… Our team understood what was expected of them and they worked together.”
It was critical when the Blue Devils saw a 12-point fourth-quarter lead erased by a late run by Moorestown to tie the game. Ewing did not let the run last.
“Their attitudes were great,” Doolan said. “Moorestown almost came back to win. It was 31-31, and they got their heads back in it and did what they had to do to pull out the win.” Najiair Oliver led all scorers with 17 points. His two free throws in the final minute helped to seal the Blue Devils win. They had gotten off to a good start to lead by 3 points at halftime and built on that lead over the second half until Moorestown rallied.
“The keys for us were our rebounding,” Doolan said. “It was very strong. Najiair and Khyon Wilkins were dominating the rebounds. Our 3-point shooting was on point.”
The co-ed team consisted of seven boys and one girl: Yohance Adams, Alex Davis, Asante Evans, Oshan Foreman, Marquis Moore, Oliver, Zachary Whyte, Wilkins; plus coaches Matt Lynch, Barbara Garcia and Doolan.
“It was definitely the high point of my career,” said Doolan, who is in her second year teaching in Ewing as a health and physical education teacher. “I was speechless. I was probably more excited than my kids. My students with intelligent disabilities have broken down so many setbacks and overcome those to play in a state championship game, it was a remarkable situation to be a part of. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it and be a part of coaching such a fantastic group of boys and girls.”
Doolan extended the unified efforts of Ewing to the administration and teachers that helped to get the team going. There was some question about them even being able to field a unified basketball team.
“Coming into the year, to be honest, we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Doolan said. “Two years ago, before I got here, they had a unified basketball team that had to forfeit the tournament because they couldn’t get the commitment from the kids. Last year, we put together a team with strong partners and we won the Shriver Cup for Special Olympics. They pushed us to go into the NJSIAA this year.”
It wasn’t a definite it could happen because to enter NJSIAA play, there are certain standards. Players have to pass screenings and medical tests that can be road blocks to assembling teams.
‘It’s a first step for a lot of our kids. It’s a class in high demand. Kids really are looking to try to get into that class.’
“We thought we weren’t going to have a team,” Doolan said. “With help from our administrators, we were able to get MedFest to get all of our students physicals.”
The opportunity to play together is what is most valuable to Ewing educators. They have been supporting the Unified Sports program and trying to build up the program and chances for students.
“It’s great to be a champion, but the bigger part of this whole thing is the experience the kids are getting and becoming friends that during the regular school day they might not have had class with or even been introduced to any other time,” said Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal.
Ewing had come together last year to take the Shriver Cup, but that didn’t guarantee anything for this year.
“A lot of our partners moved on and graduated or had other setbacks and couldn’t play this year,” Doolan said. “We lost three partners and two of our better athletes. We formed a brand-new team.”
* * *
Ewing had to finish up unified soccer before it started to focus on building this year’s basketball team.
They practiced once per week and played just four regular-season games. But they got plenty of tournament action with three games in a seeding tournament at Moorestown on Feb. 23.
They beat Hamilton West, a team that had defeated them earlier in the year, Moorestown and Burlington City. That set them up for the state tournament, where they topped Trenton and then advanced to the championship game with a 40-22 win over Union City. That sent them onto the biggest stage in the state where they added to Ewing’s basketball tradition.
“We’ve been there at that high level for our boys’ program, and last year our girls lost in the state final by one point,” Kowal said. “To win with the unified team, it’s kind of neat. It means we’ve had all three teams at that state championship level.”
Kowal says he is thrilled to see more opportunities opening up for unified athletes. Basketball is only in its second year being recognized by the state.
“NJSIAA is just starting to have events under the unified banner,” Kowal said. “This is one of the first that they’ve done. Last year or two years ago, they did track as part of the Meet of Champions. They did bowling this year and basketball.”
Doolan said she sees first-hand in class the benefits of students of all intellectual abilities working together. It helps to build the foundation for success on the basketball court.
“I teach adaptive P.E. and unified P.E.,” Doolan said. “Adaptive is working with students from the autism and life skills programs and some multiple disabled kids. At the high school, we created a unified P.E., and it has students from life skills and autism and partners from general education take it as a general elective.
“Between Dave (Angebranndt, health and physical education teacher) and I, we have 35 kids. The kids are socializing and building friendships through it. We started unified physical education at a young age, in elementary school, so now kids are being exposed to the unified mentality and the mission of it at a young age.”
The physical education class is a tool to help promote understanding and inclusion in Ewing. The class fits in with the message that is being promoted.
“It’s like a first step for a lot of our kids,” Kowal said. “It’s a class in high demand. Kids really are looking to try to get into that class. That as much as anything has been a big help. It’s during the school day, and it allows kids that are athletes to be involved in that program as well as non-athletes.”
The Ewing school community recognized the achievements of the unified basketball team with a pep rally following the championship win. They are working on getting the players rings, and each will get a varsity letter to go with an outpouring of support.
“We’ve heard from a lot of teachers and administrators,” Doolan said. “They’re going up to the students and saying congratulations. There have been a lot of emails sent to staff. From two years ago barely fielding a team, to last year’s Shriver Cup and then winning the championship, it’s been nice.”
Winning and title and doing it with such a cohesive effort will help going forward. Only Adams and Oliver will graduate from this year’s unified basketball team, and Ewing doesn’t anticipate having the numbers or commitment issues that hampered it years ago.
“Winning a championship, I don’t think we’ll have problems finding kids who want to play,” Doolan said. “Even when we were just starting, other kids see it and they want to get involved. They might not play on the high school team, but they see the unified team where they feel accepted for their abilities and can play.”