Unified March Madness unites community

Apr. 13—This year, athletes of all abilities took part in the second annual Unified March Madness game between Pisgah and Tuscola.

In most County Clash events, winning means everything. But that is not the case for the Unified March Madness game.

The game pairs students with disabilities who might not be able to participate in sports with their peers for a night to play in front of a crowd.

In total, between 40 and 50 students took part in the game.

Molly Carver, one of the teachers involved in the planning process, said that they pulled out all of the stops to make it special for the kids.

That meant introductions from an announcer, their own uniform, music, certificates and medals. They even received a pre-game meal similar to what a local church would provide to the football team before a Friday night contest.

"We tried to go all out," Carver said.

Many of the students taking part, aren't able to take part in athletics in the traditional sense. For instance, one athlete is in a wheelchair. Another has anxiety around large crowds and loud noises.

The unified game allows them the chance to have a peer to support them during a game in front of a crowd there to cheer them on.

"From my perspective, it's special to see these students with these disabilities interact with their peers and come together for this game," Carver said.

One key player in the game was senior Elizabeth Smith.

The senior was a part of the efforts to get the game off the ground last year.

"We just kind of pulled this event together because we had seen some other schools do it, and we wanted to bring unified sports to our school more," Smith said.

After getting approval for the idea, they got straight to work.

At some point, the idea came along to include Tuscola in the event.

"At first it was just going to be us, but we thought it would be more fun to do it like a rivalry game, but it's not really a rivalry game because it's about uniting our community," Smith said.

Carver said another big part of the planning was finding those who wanted to help ensure the event could happen.

"Part of the planning is having stakeholders in the community," she said. "That goes from referees for the games to people donating their time and money to make it all happen. It starts pretty early, around January is when we really start working on it."

For Smith, the game means more than words can explain.

"The most special part for me is just seeing them shine," she said. "Those kids mean the world to me. I've worked with them since my junior year. They don't get what they should sometimes. Giving them a night to shine is really warming to my heart and seeing the community come together really shows that you have someone to have your back no matter what."

While the basketball game is now two years deep into its run, there is hope to bring more unified sports into the fold.

"We'd like to do more unified sports if we can get enough stakeholders to help with that," Carver said. "That would be amazing."