Eight years ago Special Olympics Unified Basketball gave me one of the best experiences of my life. Today their mission to unite and empower is as strong as ever.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Connor Tiffany (right) prepares to shoot the ball after receiving a pass from his brother Dylan at the Special Olympics Oregon Northern Division Unified Basketball tournament on Saturday in Wilsonville. As Dylan Tiffany brings the ball up the basketball court, his teammates begin to execute a play to get the ball into the hands of Dylan's younger brother, Connor.

Connor drives the lane, receives the ball and shoots.

The ball sails through the net, making that satisfying swish sound associated with a perfect shot.

Connor raises his arms in triumph as he transitions back on defense and lets out a whooping sound. From the sideline, teachers, friends and parents of this West Linn basketball team — including Connor and Dylan's mother Brittany — look on with permanent smiles on their faces. REVIEW PHOTO: SAM STITES - Wilsonville High School's Unified Basketball team poses for a photo before one of its games Saturday.

It's a scene not uncommon for organized sports, but what makes this particular game so special is that this team is unified, part of Special Olympics' programming that brings students both with and without disabilities together on the same team.

This past Saturday, 28 Unified Basketball teams from across the Portland metro area and Bend attended the Northern Division tournament held at Wilsonville High School, Inza R. Wood and Meridian Creek Middle schools.

Eight years ago I had the opportunity to start a Unified Sports basketball team at Parkrose High School for my senior project. Unified Sports, or "Project Unify" as it was previously known, began nearly a decade ago as a pilot project of Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) and several other local chapters across the United States.

For myself and my team, it was an incredible hands-on experience learning about inclusion, teamwork and compassion. Recruiting my friends to join the team, we worked side-by-side with students living with cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities that made communication, comprehension and learning a daily challenge both in the classroom and on the basketball court.

But through mentorship from the staff at SOOR, patience and a whole lot of empathy, we were able to take our team to the state championship tournament at Springfield High School, where we won first place. Winning the tournament wasn't even the most rewarding part of the experience, rather, it was watching my team come together as one unit despite the fact they might not have ever interacted if it were not for Unified Sports.

The tournament in Wilsonville last week marked nearly a decade since I'd had the opportunity to work with SOOR and Unified Sports, so in order to reconnect with the organization that gave me one of the most rewarding experiences of my life I decided to volunteer with my former mentor and SOOR Director of School Engagement, Alix Wasteney.

The first thing I noticed was how much has changed in just eight short years.

In 2010, the state tournament was attended by about 20 schools from across Oregon. This year's tournament was one of two — a northern and southern division from which two teams from each will have the opportunity to play for the state title next week at the Oregon School Activities Association's 4A Basketball State Championship in Forest Grove in front of hundreds of fans.

It's incredible to me that the program has grown from a relatively unknown activity with just a handful of schools participating to playing as an exhibition during the an OSAA tournament. It's a testament to the hard work being done at SOOR by Wasteney, Vice President for School Partnerships and Youth Outreach Jean Hansen and Director of Unified Sports Aaron Johnson. But without partnerships between SOOR and high school athletic departments from across the state, Unified Sports wouldn't be where it is today.

Take Wilsonville High School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Dennis Burke, for example. For the past several years, Burke has been involved in a committee comprised of SOOR staff and athletic directors from around Oregon who advocate for Unified Sports to become an OSAA sanctioned event.

"We are creating and strengthening partnerships with OSAA, the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association and the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, so as a catalyst we've been able to create these Unified Championships schools," Burke said. "We have students in our schools that can benefit from being involved and connected in so many ways. We owe it to everyone student to provide them that."

Burke was instrumental in hosting the tournament in Wilsonville, and his continued involvement — as well as the rest of the committee aimed at improving Unified Sports' stature — is key to bolstering the program's reach.

That reach will allow more kids like Dylan and Connor Tiffany to have opportunities to play on a team together.

"I think it's great for those who can't participate in regular athletics because we want to provide the best educational experience for them and not have them feel they're left out of anything," Dylan said after his team won a hard-fought battle against Cleveland High School. "A lot of people say that sports are their favorite part of high school, so we should provide that to anyone who wants it."

Dylan, a senior, said he cherishes the opportunity to play with his younger brother, who is a freshman this year. For Connor, he's enjoying being part of a team where he gets to help others and in turn, receive assists from everyone else.

Established four years ago by coach Nick Pepper and fellow West Linn High School learning specialists Julie Holson and Dawn Ahlgren, the Lions Unified Basketball team has swelled to more than 20 members including partners (non-disability members) and athletes (members with disabilities).

"I think it's so important to give everyone the opportunity to work as a team, problem solve and grow as an individual. I think our district represents that mindset, and if people of all ability and types can work together as a team I think they're learning life skill and big picture lessons that are going to carry with them far beyond just high school," Pepper said. "Everyone has different strengths and areas for growth, and that's why I love Unified Sports so much. It allows people to compliment each other and become the best version of themselves."

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