NEW HAVEN >> Steven Zajac patted Alex Beckett’s right arm and smiled.
“His arm will be tired at the end of the day from shooting baskets,” Zajac said.
Beckett grinned back and nodded in approval.
Monday afternoon at the Floyd Little Athletic Center, Beckett and his Guilford teammates took part in the Southern Connecticut Conference Unified Sports basketball tournament. They were one of 14 schools to participate in the event, which had teams play four, 15-minute basketball games. Pizza and medals were handed out after.
“I think it’s incredible,” said Zajac, who has been involved with unified sports for five-six years, and is in his first year as head coach of the Guilford team.
Monday’s event though was just a snapshot of what the SCC and Unified Sports have accomplished since teaming up.
Zajac described Unified Sports in the simplest of terms.
“Friendship,” he said. “It is an opportunity for students (athletes) and special education students to mingle and get to know each other; different peers that might not be in the same classes. The socialization is just so incredible.”
Unified Sports, which started in Connecticut 1992, was built on the idea to service students with disabilities and those without. It’s been a unique blend that has blossomed into a rewarding opportunity.
“What’s happened with the Unified is it not only helps the student with the disability, but it’s reciprocal to the student without the disability,” CIAC Director of Unified Sports Lou Pear said.
During basketball games, three athletes play with two partners against another team. Zajac said the partners are not allowed to shoot but can rebound, dribble and pass the ball.
“I like playing basketball with all the friends of mine,” Beckett said, who is a post-grad student at Guilford.
The SCC is one of the leading Unified programs in state thanks in large part to West Haven Athletic Director Jonathan Capone.
“I tried it, and I got on board,” Capone said. “And probably it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Capone is now the SCC Coordinator of Unified Sports. He helps organize events for the league, he’s involved with the coaches and helps build the league.
“John has been an advocate to get other schools on board. He’s been a leader in running the SCC tournament here,” Pear said.
The growth has been outstanding as well. Pear said every SCC public school has a unified program, and it continues to expand beyond the tournaments.
“From when I first started, it’s really taken off,” Zajac said. “To start, we really only went to one or two tournaments for basketball and that was it. And now we’re doing soccer, volleyball and track and also we’re starting to schedule games on our own because the tournaments are so popular and crowded.”
On Feb. 8 the Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse unified teams will play at halftime of the Yale vs Harvard women’s basketball game at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
“The gratifications and what you can accomplish is great,” Capone said.