Organizers thrilled with turnout for sixth annual Forest Grove Unified Sports Basketball Invitational

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Chris Sullivan of the FG Viking Steel Machines tries to get the ball past Filmon Fesshazion of Parkrose during the Unified Sports Basketball Invitational.The staccato of balls hitting hardwood and the swish of made baskets were everywhere on Saturday.

It was a special day, the day of the sixth Forest Grove Unified Sports Basketball Invitational. In all, nearly 300 players from 20 teams converged on the gyms of Forest Grove High School to show their stuff — their teamwork, dedication and skill.

Unified Sports falls under the umbrella of Special Olympics, the organization that provides sporting opportunities for individuals with disabilities. In Unified Sports, the Special Olympians, referred to as the “athletes,” compete on the same teams as “partners,” teammates without disabilities.

Saturday’s event staged a morning tournament for schools with elementary school-age players. The afternoon was reserved for teams with middle- and high school-age players, who passed and ran and shot and defended their hearts out on four courts in the school’s three gyms. Western Washington County was well-represented at the event: A total of eight teams from Forest Grove participated, and another five from Hillsboro made the short trip west to take part. Teams from Portland, Beaverton, Milwaukie and Wilsonville filled out the field.

“Overall, I think it’s gone really well,” said Jill Hertel, a special education teacher at the high school and the Forest Grove Unified Coordinator. “Everyone seems to be having fun, and it’s great just to be able to provide the opportunity for kids to play against other teams and just see other teams and have playing opportunities.”

The fun being had was easily evident. There were plenty of smiles, cheers and high-fives to go around the Forest Grove gyms on Saturday. For Alex Milligan, a player on the Hillsboro Century team, his participation in Unified basketball shares a two-fold purpose.

“It’s two of my best hobbies: making friends and being athletic,” said Milligan, who attends Evergreen Middle School.

For Forest Grove senior and athlete Chris Sullivan, Saturday was a great day. Sullivan got to strut his stuff as an athlete on the Forest Grove Viking Steel Machines team. His favorite part of basketball, he said, is “stealing and shooting,” and he clearly treasures his membership on his team.

“They’re like family to me,” Sullivan said of his teammates.

One of Sullivan’s partners on the Steel Machines, Emily Peters, has the distinction of playing on both Unified Sports and varsity sports teams at Forest Grove. The junior softball standout is in her first season of Unified basketball this season, and she has also participated in other Unified Sports programs.

The experiences are providing her with a lot of experience in her future career, as Peters has designs on studying special education in college.

“This, you want to say it’s different, but it’s really not,” Peters said. “You’re playing with some of the greatest people that you’re going to meet. I love coming to practice. I love being around these people.

“This morning, all I could look forward to was coming here and being able to play.”

The influence of Unified Sports on kids like Peters is exactly what Hertel is going for. And that influence can be long-lasting. For example, Scott Korpi, 21, is in his first year of coaching the Steel Machines, but he used to be a Unified partner in the tournament’s earlier days.

“It breaks down barriers and it creates tolerance and it creates diversity,” Hertel said. “I think we’re creating more tolerant, better leaders of our future, just because this experience, it kind of makes them take a step back and look at life differently.”

That is part of the experience. One great aspect — among plentiful ones — of Unified Sports.

“We don’t play the game to win the gold medals or to go to championships or victories,” Milligan said. “That’s not our point. We just play to have fun and get to know our teammates better. And I think it’s just a great way for us to get a good bond.”

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