Playing with a unified purpose

Saranac Lake’s Holly Kurtz and an AuSable Valley player chase a loose ball during unified basketball action Monday on the Red Storm’s court. Other players pictured include AuSable Valley’s Angel Crowningfield (2) Dakota Martin and Taylor Hackett (11), and Saranac Lake’s Dawson Hough (11), Tyler Hochwald (2) and Anna Ellithorp (4). (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — Classes were dismissed early. The gym was packed with students, teachers, staff and fans, and the Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley unified basketball teams didn’t disappoint.

On Monday afternoon with the entire student body of Saranac Lake High School watching from the stands, players on the Red Storm and Patriots unified teams laid it all on the line with four quarters of inspired basketball. In the end, AuSable Valley eked out a 41-40 victory, but the outcome really didn’t matter a whole lot.

The game was more about having fun, being good sports and good teammates, and giving kids a chance to be involved in an activity they normally wouldn’t participate in. The two schools are part of the Section VII unified basketball league that brings together students and students with disabilities to the same team.

When they squared off on Monday, the home crowd cheered almost equally for both sides, although the spectators were awash in the red and white school colors of Saranac Lake, and obviously did have some favorite players.

“The only way this could have ended better was in a tie,” smiled Jamie Douglas, one of the Patriots’ coaches.

Red Storm junior Darron Balch tosses in two of the 10 points he scored during Monday’s game. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

The game was close from start to finish. The teams were tied 16-16 at the end of the first quarter and were still deadlocked at halftime with the score at 30-30. AuSable Valley led by as much as seven in the second half, but the hosts closed the gap down the stretch while coming up just one point short.

Saranac Lake head coach Jacob Vennie-Vollrath explained that’s how most of the games have played out so far this season.

“When it’s close like that, it’s fun for both teams, it’s exciting for both teams,” he said. “We have a lot of community members, a lot of teachers, a lot of people who come out and support the sport. It’s a great event.”

Vennie-Vollrath said it was pretty amazing watching the two teams heading up and down the court in front of a packed house.

“It’s really enjoyable being a part of this, and it’s really rewarding to coach these kids,” he said. “I think some of them were kind of nervous before the game, but when they got out there, most of them put out their best game that they’ve played all year. A lot of them put the ball in the basket, and that was exciting.

Saranac Lake High School students show their spirit in the stands during halftime of Monday’s Red Storm unified basketball game against AuSable Valley. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

“I think the student body really helped today because we have some players who haven’t scored this season put a couple of baskets in today. You kind of heard it; the whole crowd erupted when certain players got the ball in the basket. It’s a lot of fun.”

“It was a blast,” said Stephanie Murphy, a coach for the Patriots. “We’re fortunate that they invited us up here and we’re looking forward to them coming our way next year. We have a hard-working, good group of kids. A good dynamic. They’re a lot of fun. They persevere through everything and at the end of the day the score doesn’t matter to them. It’s just about having fun.”

Murphy added that players are also learning lessons they’ll be able to use well after their high school days are over.

“It’s about teamwork,” she said. “They’re learning how to work together, communicate with each other and sportsmanship. They are understanding that winning isn’t everything as long as we’re out there having a good time.”

Both teams are in their second season of unified basketball. One Saranac Lake player who is back for another year on the team is junior Darron Balch, who had quite a performance Monday finishing with 10 points.

“Feels awesome,” Balch said describing playing in front of all the fans. “Got some huge baskets, got back on D and things like that. That’s what I like about it.”

A number of staff members and students at Saranac Lake have taken on important roles to help establish unified basketball at the school. Will Ellsworth, who is an assistant coach with the team and the coordinator of school’s Youth Activation Committee, thanked all those responsible for the success of the program.

This year’s student members of the committee are Bruno Freeman, Quin Peer, Maggie Carpenter and Anna Ellithorpe.

“They are trained on how to implement innovative ways on including students with disabilities within the school, and obviously all four have done a phenomenal job this year; making meetings, making practices and playing in a few of the games,” Ellsworth said. “But in the greater world, just making our community better and giving our students with disabilities a vision is what unified is all about. It’s forming this one cohesive unit and giving these kids an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before. I couldn’t be any more proud of our team, our coaches, our fans, our school.”