The list of options for sports teams in local high schools is expanding.
After two seasons of unified soccer in the spring, Medford School District is launching unified winter basketball in all three high schools in the coming month. Unified sports teams include students with and without disabilities. Crater High School in Central Point also will add a unified basketball team, which will face another new team formed at Phoenix High School for two games this season.
By bringing together students of varying abilities, ages and experience levels, the co-ed unified sports teams create opportunities for differences to fade beneath the same jerseys and goals.
Special Olympics typically provides guidance on how to build and sustain a unified sports team, offering resources on topics ranging from coaching to marketing. Tania Tong, Medford's special education and student services director, said Special Olympics helps the team members with equipment and transportation, both for after-school practices and games, as well as training for coaches to navigate the challenges and opportunities involved with overseeing a unified team.
"I think the primary difference is we want both coaches and partners to understand that we have different learning styles, and everyone is unique," she said. "And even though we have differences, we all bring strengths to the table."
That message of inclusiveness doesn't rub the competition out of the games, however. Victoria Duran, who played on the unified soccer team at North Medford High School both seasons so far, said the experience made her feel like she was on a varsity team because of the support from the school and the intensity of the trainings.
"It got hard," she said. "I'd never been pushed to run like that before."
After graduating from North in 2017, Duran now participates in a Transitions program at Central Medford High School — meaning this year she'll find herself competing against former teammates in soccer and basketball.
"They'll definitely recognize me," she said. "Yeah, I'm a little bit nervous."
The competition seems for the most part to remain friendly and ends with a championship tournament among the Medford and Central Point high school teams. Every player gets an award at the ceremony, Tong said.
Medford Athletic Director Amy Tiger said the district always planned to expand into other sports after establishing the first team.
"The struggle with basketball is figuring out the right timing for it," she said. The Oregon School Activities Association has rules about how eligible athletes can train during the off-season, and since coaches and athletes from OSAA teams are involved in the unified teams, they've had to navigate carefully to ensure the varsity players could still play.
Jesse Higgins, a senior starter on the South Medford High School varsity basketball team, heard about the district's interest in starting a basketball team last year, when he was thinking about what he could do for his senior project. He's since helped to organize the team, getting the word out to students in special-education classes as well as others and arranging the game schedule.
Higgins said the process of putting together the team and working with students has been "humbling."
"It's bigger than regular basketball," he said.
One of his friends since freshman year, Tianna Crick, will be on the team. While on South Medford's unified soccer team, she said, she helped teach her teammates techniques she learned playing when she was young. She plans to do the same with basketball, a sport she said she's played since middle school.
"We have to work together," she said. "And pass (the ball)."
The South Medford unified basketball team will play its debut game during halftime at the boy's varsity game Tuesday, Feb. 6. Crater and Phoenix will tip off at 6:15 p.m. Feb. 1 in the Phoenix High School gym. Interested Medford students can find relevant forms on the Peachjar site on each schools' website, the school district's communication forum, and turn them into school athletic offices, or can contact Special Education and Student Services at 541-842-3628. Crater students can contact Athletic Director David Heard by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Although Phoenix High School's team is already set for this year, the athletic office can be contacted for more information at 541-535-1526, ext. 313.