BBA Unified basketball starts with buzzer-beating win

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MANCHESTER — Becky Skandera came off the Burr and Burton gym bleachers with tears in her eyes.

She had just seen her nephew, freshman Dylan Skandera, hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in the first-ever Unified Basketball game at Burr and Burton Academy.

She, along with Dylan's uncle, Nick

Perlmutter, also saw his teammates — athletes and partners alike — mob him with congratulations as raucous cheers deafened E.H. Henry Gym on March 21.

"I was just excited that he made a basket," Skandera said. "It was so exciting for the buzzer-beater, he almost came out of his skin. It's such a great opportunity to be a part of a real game."

She almost missed it, unable to get to the school until halftime.

But she saw the most important shot.

Skandera's winning shot gave BBA its first program win, beating 2017 state champion Brattleboro, no less.

"My girlfriend told me to just play hard and have as much fun as I could," said Dylan Skandera. "It feels good to do it in the first game of the year. It's good to be a part of BBA, it shows who we are, representing our school."

Unified Basketball is in its fourth year as a sport in Vermont schools in a joint partnership between Special Olympics Vermont and the Vermont Principals Association.

It gives students with intellectual disabilities a chance to compete just like any other athletes, inter-scholastically, with the help of other students — many junior varsity and varsity athletes — who are known as partners. At Burr and Burton, there are 14 partners and six athletes this season.

The game came to Burr and Burton thanks to junior Joey McCoy. He went to a conference in Indiana and played the game and knew he needed to bring it back to Manchester.

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"[Assistant Athletic Director] Julie Crosier sent me to the conference and I was half in, half out," McCoy said. "But then we worked with the Special Olympians and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I knew other [schools in Vermont] had it, but I couldn't imagine it would be like this."

The team is coached by Don Benasich and assisted by Meagan Benasich. Don Benasich has coached Special Olympics sports for more than a decade.

"[Athletic Director] Dave [Miceli] and Julie [Crosier] took the ball and ran with it," Don Benasich said. "Of course, Joey was a huge part too, he started a Healthy Athletes program that took place during gym class and it rolled into Unified Basketball.

Benasich said for the athletes, it's a chance for them to play in front of their peers.

"It's an opportunity to be on a varsity team, they can earn a letter," Benasich said. "They are so excited about playing. Everything is the same as the varsity teams do it. They practice four times a week and we put them through a hard practice. We set up offense, defense, they run sprints and do conditioning. But above all, it's building teamwork."

As good as it is for the athletes, it's just as good for the partners.

"We team them up in practice, so if someone is unsure of a drill, the partner helps," Benasich said. "It's unified. The [partners] are on the court, telling them where to go, where to set up, where to shoot from. It teaches [the partners] leadership and responsibility and it gives them a different perspective. And the athletes look up to the partners. We have a great group of partners."

Benasich said the team has been practicing for about a month and the difference is stark.

"Compare that first practice to today and they were having trouble with the drills," Benasich said. "Now they are making layups, playing defense. They've become basketball players. To win the first game ever, it's going to give them so much self-confidence and a lot of pride."

It affords opportunities like the one Thursday, where a freshman took a 15-foot jump shot with two seconds left and hit nothing but net, then celebrated with his teammates — his friends.

"I don't get that type of emotion often, but when I do it's pretty special, [seeing him hit] that shot was pretty awesome. If not for Don, Dave and Julie, this wouldn't have been possible," McCoy said.

Schedule, games at 4 p.m. unless noted: March 26 at Mill River, March 27 vs Middlebury, April 2 at Springfield, April 4 vs Rutland, 3:30 p.m., April 9 at Otter Valley, 3 p.m., April 11 at Leland & Gray, 3 p.m., April 22 vs Hartford, 3:30 p.m.

Roster (athletes and partners): Olivia Gardner, Jillian Kersten, Christopher Ott, Max Hurley, Dominick Miceli, Kyle Dooling, Aryn Iannuzzi, Karl Dooling, Ashley Heaton, Phoebe Fuller, Matthew Carrara, Dylan Skandera, Cassie Pearce, Lauren Crosier, Madox Mathews, William Morell, Aiden Francomb, Madelyn Goebel, Carol Herbert, Joey McCoy, John Miceli, Grace Pinkus.


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