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This game's for all

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Ashland School District wrapped up its first basketball season in the unified sports league Thursday, and officials are calling it a "win-win."

Twenty players got to suit up for the Grizzlies in their first season, according to ASD Athletics and Activities Director Karl Kemper.

"It's kind of what sports should be all about," Kemper said. "Some people get really competitive and forget that high school athletics is really nothing more than just kids playing a game, and this is that in its purest sense."

Three athletes with disabilities and two partners without disabilities are in the game.

The league is open to middle and high school students, including transition-age students, so players can range in age from 13 to 21. All genders can play.

“I thought it would be a fun way to run around, have fun, play basketball,” said ninth-grader Ethan Ramsey. “I like playing with my friends, going against other teams and having tournaments. I love it.”

Tenth-grader Ezra Steiner said he has been playing basketball for two years.

“I love teamwork, my team is great,” he said. “My favorite part is shooting three-point shots. I’m really good at that.”

Grants Pass is also new to the league, which already had teams from Central Medford, South Medford and North Medford, Phoenix and Crater high schools.

Basketball runs in ninth-grader Aylah Hinkle’s family, she said, so she’s glad to be on a team again.

“I really loved playing on a team and actually getting to know how to play the game and the rules,” she said. “The best part is seeing how everyone comes together and how they work as a team. I just love connecting.”

The team has thoroughly enjoyed its first season, Kemper said.

“We strongly believe that we want to provide extracurricular opportunities through athletics and activities for all kids, and this is a way to include more kids who may not be involved otherwise,” Kemper said. “For some kids on the team it’s the first time they’ve ever been on an organized team, and some kids have not been historically active and they’re really engaged in activity now.”

He said sportsmanship and teamwork are heavily emphasized.

“Everybody is supporting everybody,” Kemper said. “Everybody involved in the program is super excited. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The program is part of the global program Special Olympics Unified Sports, however it differs from the Special Olympics because there are unified partners involved to help, or teammates without intellectual disabilities.

Rusty from not playing basketball in about seven years, 11th-grader Artem Fischer said he still enjoyed himself.

“I wanted to be able to help kids with special needs get involved in the community and do what they love most and give them an opportunity that some kids never got,” Fischer said. “If someone isn’t given all the opportunities as everyone else, they’ll fall behind in society and could miss out on other opportunities like jobs and careers and relationships. So, it’s good to give back to what they don’t have.”

Fischer said he likes his roles so much he hopes to participate next year, and he’s thought of making a career out of it.

Southern Oregon also has unified soccer season from September to November.

ASH hosted an adult unified volleyball league last fall, Kemper said, and that started everything in motion. He said he hopes to eventually have a unified youth volleyball team as well.

“It seemed like an exciting opportunity to get more kids involved in our athletics program, bring more kids together, and better understand kids with different needs,” Kemper said.

The unified basketball head coach Ronald Rylance is a special education assistant at AHS and also the offensive line coach for the football team. He said it’s been a great first season.

“We’ve lost some and we’ve won some, but it was great,” Rylance said. “Sometimes these kids get overlooked, and it makes them happy to be included. We’re looking forward for the next season.”

Kemper said anyone who wants to play on the team or help out should visit him at his office on campus or email him at Karl.Kemper@ashland.k12.or.us.

Crater High School was broken into two teams, and Crater No. 2 won Thursday’s tournament. It was a round-robin tournament, so everyone got to play. There was a medal ceremony for everyone after the tournament and pizza party afterward.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Ashland player Anna Wang, (2), gives a high-five and a smile to the Grants Pass Unified Basketball Team Thursday after a tournament game in Medford. Photo by Denise Baratta
Ashland Unified Basketball head coach Bubba Rylance directs game play against Thursday against Grants Pass. Photo by Denise Baratta