SHELTON — John Niski from Shelton High has been named Michael’s Cup Athletic Director of the Year for his contribution to the success of Unified Sports.
“At its core, Unified Sports is what a high school athletic experience should be all about,” Niski said. “Kids pull together, they play hard but also have fun, sharing expertise and love of sports with their classmates. Anyone who has been to a Unified Sports or Special Olympics event at some capacity, you walk away with a feeling that is unlike any other in the world. From the athletes, to the partners, to the coaches, to the fans everyone walks away knowing that this is good stuff.
“I clearly have really great people around me that make me look good. My Unified coaches, Karen Devonshuk and Mike Gambardella, along with the Athletic Secretary Brenda Hansen are the best in the business. Their commitment to Unified Sports is really what makes the experience for our Unified athletes and partners so positive.”
Niski came aboard as athletic director when the Unified Sports program at Shelton was in its infancy.
“Unified Sports at Shelton was already in its first year when I took over as athletic director (in 2004), right around there,” Niski said. “It came as an outgrowth of the relationship that Shelton High School and its staff members had with (then-opened) Ripton School.
“Tracy Nolan-Hussey, who was a special education teacher there, was a big proponent of getting the Unified Sports program started. She was involved heavily with Connecticut Special Olympics with her students. The Unified program was a natural follow up to the Special Olympics program. Tracy did just an amazing job.”
Niski earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Arts Education from Central Connecticut State University in 1985, and that year began an 18-year career teaching Technology Education at Shelton High.
He received his Master of Science Information Technology in 1990 from Southern Connecticut State University. In 2000, Niski was presented with his Professional Certificate in Education Administration at Sacred Heart University.
“As the Unified program went along it was promoted more,” Niski said. “More kids became interested and we expanded it to include basketball, track and cheerleading. Then Mike Gambardella with track and Karen Devonshuk with basketball got involved as coaches in track and basketball. They do just a tremendous job of running our programs. I support them as much as possible and give them as much help as I can.”
There are up to 40 athletes/partners involved in any school year.
Devonshuk said: “John is very deserving of this honor. His continued and unfailing support of Unified Sports at Shelton High and steadfast willingness to host CIAC and SCC Unified Sports events is second-to-none. John Niski is an outstanding, caring, compassionate man and we are very proud and lucky to have him as our athletic director.
“John is always first to say, ‘Yeah — we’ll host a track meet/basketball tournament/soccer tournament. No problem.’ His enthusiasm for all our events is so contagious that one cannot help but be drawn into our wonderful world of Unified Sports.
“John has always been supportive of all the sports and the athletes at Shelton High School, but I do believe he truly shines when it comes to our Unified programs. Our Unified program is nationally recognized and the CIAC’s selection of Shelton High for the Michaels Cup Best High School Program for 2019 couldn’t have been done without him.
“Coaching Unified Basketball and Unified Track & Field, along with my co-coach Michael Gambardella, is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Teaching our athletes new skills and watching them use those skills when competing at tournaments and meets is an experience that is wonderful to be part of.
“I won’t lie, we do have our challenges, but those challenges are erased when we see the joy on our kids’ faces when they make a basket, win a race, or jump farther than they ever have before. Coaching Unified Sports is a most rewarding endeavor. John, Mike, the kids, and I complement each other to make a great team. I love working with all of them.”
Niski appreciates the support from Shelton’s students.
“We have a ton of kids that are involved in the program,” Niski said. “When we have events, students come out to support their classmates. How cool is that? Myself and my coaches do as much as possible to support the program and to provide an experience to our athletes and their partners so that they can have the same experience as all our athletes.
“Last year when we received the Michael’s Cup Award for the best program in the state, that was just fantastic. That speaks to everyone in the program, to the support we get from the administration, from the Board of Ed, I mean everyone wants to support it.
“For this year for them to pick me, well that is humbling. It’s not me, it’s all the good people I have around me. They make me look good. Someone has to be the pretty face.”
Unified Sports notebook
Jen LaCapra from Oxford High is the George Synnott High School Coach of the Year.
Henry Marchard from Torrington High is the George Synnott Middle School Coach of the Year.
The Michaels Cup High School of the Year is Rockville High School.
The Michaels Cup Middle School of the Year is Whisconier Middle School in Brookfield.
The Rookie School of the Year is Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield.
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