Organizer Cassie Contigiani (center) joined Belmont High School's Unified Basketball team and her staff of volunteers as they watched one of several 16-minute games between seven schools last Saturday at the 4th Annual Lakes Region Unified Basketball Jamboree. (Photo by Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
January 11, 2018BELMONT — Supported by Special Olympics, Unified Sports has provided students with intellectual and other disabilities the chance to participate in inter-scholastic athletic activities, and adding to that excitement has been the Lakes Region Unified Basketball Jamboree, first introduced by Belmont High School's Cassie Contigiani as her senior project in 2015.
Contigiani, a former star softball player for BHS, said she was inspired to start the tournament after watching some of the less-able classmates she grew up with left cheering her on from the sidelines when she moved on to high school; she was disappointed that students who participated in sports with her in their younger years no longer made the teams. Of special interest were the tournaments she got to play in, so she organized a tournament for them.
"They sat on the sidelines and cheered for me throughout high school. Now I get to sit on the sidelines and cheer for them," she said last weekend.
Now a junior majoring in Sports Management at Thomas College in Maine, Contigiani has returned to Belmont each January since 2015 to run the tournament she began in high school.
"The nice part is, I have so many graduates of Belmont coming back to help out for the tournament," she said. "My family also does a lot and it's become a real friend and family affair."
While she is away at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine Contigiani said she has not lost touch with the jamboree. In fact she has spread her enthusiasm for Unified Sports even further.
"I got injured playing softball this year, and while talking with my athletic trainer I found out he had a nephew with autism," she said. "When I told him about what I've been doing back home, he asked why I wasn't doing that at Thomas College."
So she Contigiani rose to that challenge, too. She initiated a Special Olympics Club, which already has 25 members and went a step further by getting Thomas College designated as a Special Olympics School. In two weeks, she will hold the college's, and the State of Maine's, first ever Unified Sports Jamboree, too.
The success of her senior year initiative was obvious last weekend when seven schools came together for a day when scores didn't matter but spirit did.
Participants in the 2018 tournament came from Belmont, Berlin, Gilford, Interlakes/Moultonborough, Newfound, Winnisquam and White Mountain. While other schools had hoped to attend, scheduling and other complications kept a few of them away this year.
New rules in Unified Sports this year state that school athletes cannot score the points, only help to move the ball down the court. It is the Special Olympians who must make the baskets and that only added to the excitement.
Josh from Belmont's team was excited to be an important member of his team by putting numbers on the board throughout the day, while Megan was pleased she also played a scoring role for the Winnisquam team. In the long run, each was just happy to take part in the competition.
"I've been playing for three years now and the support we receive from all the athletes is great," Megan said.
Newfound Regional High School joined the jamboree for the first time this year with their new Unified Sports Basketball Team. Athletic Director Peter Cofran was among those in attendance who were happy to cheer them all on.
"I think this is great. If we want to talk about mainstreaming in schools, actions like this speak louder than words," Cofran said.
He added that the beauty of Unified Sports is bringing mainstream student athletes, who might not have time to commit to a rigorous team practice schedule, together with others who just want to experience the thrill of competition. As a result, they participate on a team and get to know each other better.
"It's great to see them high-fiving each other as they go from class to class. They (the mainstream students) realize they're giving something back by playing Unified Sports," Cofran said.
White Mountain High School was another team experiencing their first ever tournament play.
"It was a long ride but we're very happy to be here. This sounds like it will be a lot of fun," said Ken Mayer.
Athletes from White Mountain were also excited as they prepared to take on Newfound for their first match-up.
To move things along, each game had two eight-minute halves and after every four games, music blared, athletes danced and Huck-A-Bag raffle winners were announced. Other raffles for numerous gifts and gift cards from local businesses, along with a $400 Inner Circle membership to the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion's Summer Concert Series, were awarded at the end of the day.
Over the course of the tournament, athletes from Winnisquam and Gilford met students from Newfound, Belmont and Interlakes/Moultonborough in a local challenge. They then went on to face off against teams from Berlin and White Mountain in a series of abbreviated play. To wrap up the day at 2:55 p.m., the Belmont team went head-to-head against Berlin for a final full regulation game, which had everyone cheering, no matter which team they represented.
Contigiani's close friend, Special Olympian Laura Davies, was a big part of her inspiration to organize the initial jamboree in 2015. As always Laura contributed to the preparations for this year's event and even obtained raffle items from Fratello's Restaurant where she now works. Due to her age, this was Davies's last year to participate on the Belmont team, but she's not walking away from the tournament she helped inspire.
"I love it. This is a really wonderful thing and I'm looking forward to helping Cassie out in the future," she said.
Davies was recognized by Contigiani with a full page tribute in the jamboree's program this year. Friends since they were young girls, and young athletes, Contigiani said she was grateful for their friendship and all that has transpired as a result.
"Laura and I had the chance to be ambassadors at the 2015 Special Olympic World Games where we made friends with athletes all around the world," she wrote.
That friendship now brings even more people together in the spirit of camaraderie and sportsmanship.
All proceeds from the Fourth Annual Unified Basketball Jamboree will help Belmont athletes take part in the New Hampshire Special Olympics Winni Dip in March, ultimately giving back to the nonprofit organization that supports it all.