Nine players on the Cheektowaga Central Unified basketball team will travel to Orlando, Florida repping not only Western New York, but the entire state in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games from June 5th-12th.
“It is a great honor for our school and our kids to have this opportunity to compete,” Cheektowaga head coach and special education teacher Brian Pane says. “It’s bigger than us, than Cheektowaga and WNY in general. It’s going to be a really eye-opening experience for all of us.”
Unified athletics combines athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to create athletic teams for training and competition. Inclusive activity is among the most conducive ways to break down stereotypes and foster relationships. Cheektowaga joined Section VI Unified athletics in 2017.
Since the program’s inception, Cheektowaga has claimed two divisional titles (2019 and 2021) and is eyeing down another deep playoff run this season before heading off to Florida. Once arriving at the sports complex at Disney, they will be united with more than 5,500 athletes and coaches from across the country and the Caribbean to compete for gold.
Pane, who has been involved with Special Olympics since the age of 16, has taken three teams to State Games as a coach over the years. This will be his first trip to the national competition.
“We preach playing with compassion. No matter what, we have to read the situation and play with compassion,” Pane says.
Pane understands that the goal of unified sports is to showcase the students’ special abilities that they offer to the team, school, and community. The national competition is not just a free trip to Disney, it’s a competition that he has to prepare his team for.
“We’ve been practicing as much as we can since October. We take every chance we can get to be in the gym before the varsity sports have practice,” Pane says. “The intensity is going to be a lot higher at the USA Games than we’re used to here. Our practices are upbeat, they’re intense. We get the most out of our time when we’re in there.”
The entire basketball team has fifteen players on the roster, but they didn’t just sign up to play, there is one crucial prerequisite for being on the team – participation in the Polar Plunge.
Each December, Special Olympics hosts the Polar Plunge, where members of the community raise funds and awareness for the organization by jumping into the freezing cold Lake Erie. In the last seven years, the high schools involved have raised over $100,000 for Special Olympics.
“It’s great to raise awareness and to show our Special Olympic athletes that we support them and are behind them while raising money for a good cause.” Pane says. “That money comes right back to us, eventually, as Special Olympics helps our Unified programs with the funding we may need throughout the year.”
Pane made this event a requirement as he wanted to ensure that the students on the basketball team were fully committed to the purpose behind unified sports and Special Olympics. To his delight, all of the students that joined in on the Plunge also participated on Cheektowaga’s Unified bowling team in the winter.
The unified basketball team traveled down to Olean this winter for a St. Bonaventure Men’s Basketball game to see former assistant coach Dom Welch, who plays for the Bonnies. The team was honored on the court and received a standing ovation during a TV timeout.
“It was amazing,” Pane said. “The Bona community did such a great job and they treated us so well all night.”
Since the start of the 2022 unified basketball season in early May, the Warriors have been red hot, boasting a perfect 5-0 record.
After a game at City Honors on Wednesday, the Cheektowaga Unified basketball team will return home one final time on May 25th for a matchup with the Olmstead Owls.
Tip-off is slated for 5 p.m., with senior night festivities beginning at 4:45 p.m. at Cheektowaga Central High School.
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