CENTRAL FALLS — The Unified Basketball League, the second-year R.I. Interscholastic League program that matches Special Needs athletes with partners from their respective high schools, has not only grown in the amount of teams that participate, but in its competitiveness.
Division I Northern rivals Central Falls and Woonsocket demonstrated that aspect Wednesday afternoon at the Warriors’ Gymnasium with a thrilling, down-to-the-wire affair.
After an intense battle for nearly the entire contest, senior Jose Colon nailed a 3-pointer with 2:20 left on the clock, igniting an eventual 27-20 victory for Central Falls before its hometown fans. Colon’s crucial shot broke a 20-all tie and helped the Warriors earn their fourth win of the season.
Central Falls coach Katie Gomes, a severe and profound Special Education teacher at the school, didn’t expect anything different between the two squads. C.F. never trailed in the game, but also never had a lead larger than four points.
The matchup not only included two intense rivals, but opposing coaches with familiar backgrounds. Pacing the sideline for Woonsocket was Pamela Johnson, an adaptive Phys. Ed teacher at the high school and a fellow WHS grad with Gomes.
“It’s more fun than a rivalry,” said Gomes. “The students just go out and have fun. It’s the closest games that you are going to get, all of our unified sports. In the end, we always go back and forth.”
Johnson and Gomes agree that the unified programs, which are funded by the Special Olympics and also include volleyball in the fall season, are taking great strides in their initial years.
The primary purpose is to allow the Special Needs athletes to enjoy the benefits of a competitive varsity sport, including being an active participant as a team member.
“I’ve noticed that my athletes and partners are taking more control of the game and coaching on the court,” Gomes said. “That allows me to take a step back and kind of watch more than coach. I find it’s kind of like the partners taking an extra step up, which is only helping our kids become more involved in the school and on the court.”
“It’s unity,” Johnson said. “This is exactly what the sport is supposed to be.”
Colon is one of several players that have taking huge steps forward in their progress. His late-game heroics didn’t surprise his coach either.
“He’s an intern with me (at the school),” Gomes said. “What I’ve done with him is taught him how to be a mentor and almost be a partner. But he’s an athlete. He’s usually afraid to take those (3-point) shots. But when I tell him to take those shots, he’ll take them, and he’ll take them at important moments like that. He’s just a phenomenal athlete.”
“He was somebody, who last year, didn’t get a chance to play,” she continued. “This year he’s like, ‘Can I play, Miss Gomes?’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely!’ He is graduating. He wanted to leave last year and decided to come back here…He is just shining as a model athlete.”
Enrique Germoso, a C.F. senior, is another player that has improved dramatically in a short time. Germoso, who was heavily guarded throughout the afternoon, had just two points versus Woonsocket. But in last week’s game with Toll Gate – a 41-33 win by the Warriors - he lit the twines for 14 points.
“Last year he used to run the other way and shoot at the wrong (basket) He was very confused on which way to go and who to cover,” Gomes said. “This year he has kind of taken control and utilized his partners and athletes and let them give him direction whereas last year he was a little afraid of that. I have made him feel a little more comfortable on the court and made him feel more like an athlete.”
The Villa Novans’ Brady Russell, another athlete, had just two points. Russell was plagued by bad luck as he has a number of long-range bombers that would hit off the top of the rim and bounce away.
The fact that he wasn’t afraid to shoot and rarely needed guidance made it a winning effort for Russell, according to his coach.
“He’s a first-year player. He’s very shy but he’s coming through,” Johnson said. “He has a partner that he plays with, but today I got him in without her.”
Woonsocket senior Elwin Pimental and Central Falls senior Ricardo Robles tied game-high scoring honors among athletes in Wednesday’s tilt with six points apiece.
The regular season for the league, which includes three sub-divisions, wraps up the first week in May. Currently, the Warriors occupy second in the Northern division with a 4-1 mark. The Villa Novans stand at 3-2 and are in third place.
While all her players have given her a reason to smile each time on the court, Gomes believes Germoso epitomizes what the league is all about.
“It’s an excellent feeling,” she said. “I tell all my colleagues, ‘You need to come and see Enrique play.’ He’s the highlight of my team. He’s what unified is all about, to grow and become accepted.”