GLOCESTER — Beth Keeling has had a strong involvement in Ponaganset High athletics, particularly over the last decade.
Keeling is the school’s “unofficial” photographer at various sporting events and also has been an avid supporter, including following the stellar football and track & field careers of her three sons, Mike, Jacob and Nick.
Her three sons have since graduated, but the retired special education teacher has still found a way to stay connected with her “kids” on the athletic spectrum at Ponaganset.
Keeling is among those involved in the Unified Basketball League, the second-year program that partners athletes with special needs with other varsity athletes. The Chieftains are one of the latest teams to join the league, which is funded by the Special Olympics and other grants, and is part of the R.I. Interscholastic League (RIIL). Volleyball has also been added to the RIIL slate.
In its two years of existence, teams in the basketball league have nearly doubled with 18 squads suiting up this season as opposed to 10 in the initial year.
The coach for Ponaganset’s unified team is Gary Martinelli, who during the winter months can be seen on the court coaching the girls’ varsity basketball program. Keeling and special education teacher Jen Paolantonio also assist with the 12-member team that includes six special needs players and six varsity teammates.
“This is a real cool thing,” said Keeling, who retired from her 30-year teaching career at Zambarano Hospital in 2008 “Rhode Island is the only state in the country that has made it a varsity sport. The Special Olympics funds the whole thing. They pay for our uniforms, buy everything that we need. That makes it even better.”
Martinelli, a special education teacher at the school and also an assistant football coach for the Chieftains, was approached about coaching the team shortly after his varsity basketball season ended.
“I was a little leery because I had just finished basketball and also had coached football in the fall so I was a little tired and felt I needed a break,” he said. “After the first practice, that all went away. To come to practice and to see them all light up, it’s great. Before, these kids always called me Mr. Martinelli. Now they call me coach. They love having a coach, love going on a bus and being a team.”
The Chieftains opened up their league season last week at Toll Gate and this past Wednesday traveled to Central Falls – two schools that were among the original teams in the league. In both games, Ponaganset came out on the low end of the final score.
Keeling says all you have to do is see the expressions on the players’ faces to know that the numbers on the scoreboard don’t really matter.
“When I walked into their classroom last Wednesday,” she said. “They were jumping out of their skin. They couldn’t wait for their game.”
Local squads that are involved in the league along with Ponaganset and Central Falls are second-year member Woonsocket and Tolman, another newcomer. The Chieftains compete with the Warriors and Villa Novans in Division I Northern, while Tolman is in Div. I Eastern. The league has seven games, plus playoffs.
Ponaganset officially joined the league back in November when Keeling approached executive director Tom Mezzanotte about the school’s interest.
“Last year they ran a pilot program and we really didn’t know,” she said. “Only select schools were chosen to see how it works.”
“It has really had an impact on the school (this year),” she continued. “It’s become a whole school celebration. There’s a ton of paperwork, it takes a whole lot to get in, but it’s absolutely awesome. They are a part of the school now, part of athletics and a real team. This is their game right on the court.”
The six special needs players on the 2011 squad for the Chieftains are sophomore Richard Brousseau, senior Joseph Westgate, junior James Lowell, senior Dawn Marie Kapp, junior Natasha Sartini and freshman Nathaniel DaCosta.
Of the five players on the floor during game time, three have special needs and the other two are partners, such as senior Norman Diamante.
“He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Keeling said. “He just has a special way with the players. He treats them like they don’t have a disability…He’s always got a huge smile on his face. He’s been absolutely awesome.”
Ponaganset will be back in action next Wednesday when it plays host to Woonsocket in its first home game at 3:30 p.m. A pep rally has already been planned prior to the contest and Keeling predicts a huge turnout for the Chieftains’ newest team.
“It is worth ever second to see how excited they get,” Keeling said. “After all their games, we have them write reflections about their (experience). If you read them, they just make you cry.”
Such as the one written by Broussueau that read, “Everybody was cheering my name. It made me so happy.”