The Amsterdam High School Unified basketball team wrapped up its second regular season last Thursday at AHS with a 39-33 loss against Niskayuna. But one game could never fully define or put in perspective the importance of the program to its school.
“Our team has come a long way,” said Amsterdam head coach Jessica Byerwalters, who is now in her second year with the team. “These kids are important to the school, to me and our athletic director Brian Mazza. This program is important to all of us.”
The Amsterdam unified team is part of Project Unify, a program associated with Special Olympics that teams up student athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to provide real, competitive opportunities in sports.
Project Unify is an education and sports based strategy involving youths within a community for the purpose of boosting athletic and leadership chances for student athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, and is part of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA).
Coach Byerwalters learned about the program through Amsterdam High School Athletic Director Brian Mazza in 2015.
“Mr. Mazza told me about the program and asked if I would be interested in coaching the team,” Byerwalters said. “I told him I was in for this one hundred percent. I said I would love to be a part of it.”
Byerwalters experience working with students with disabilities, and a masters degree in adaptive physical education made her the ideal candidate for the job. The team began play in 2015 and advanced all the way to the NYSPHSAA Section 2 tournament at the Glens Falls Civic Center, where they brought home a plaque for their fourth place finish. The regular season for unified basketball runs from April through May with teams playing a total of six games, and a schedule breakdown of one home game and one road game per week. This year Byerwalters is joined by AHS student assistant coaches Kaitlyn Devine, Gehrig Garner, Gabe Dejesus, and Victoria Barone-Lopez.
“I have twenty kids that volunteered to be a part of this,” Byerwalters said. “These kids mean a lot to them, and for them to be a part of this is amazing.”
Project Unify has different divisions among its sports classifications ranging from a training division with an emphasis on the learning level to a competitive level. Amsterdam’s team pairs up athletes with disabilities and their partners without disabilities at a competitive level. The AHS team’s current roster consists of 22 athletes and partners, all of similar age and skill ability. The unified sports program is designed to provide opportunities for physical fitness, and helps student athletes develop friendships and gain an appreciation for, and respect for sports, their teammates, and opponents.
The 2016 Amsterdam Unified Basketball team roster includes athletes Alex Adamowski, Abbey Etherton, Jeannie Miles, Jessica Miles, Angelie Padilla, Anthony Perez, Jonathon Perez, Stephanie Rodriguez, Jesus Rosado, Kyle Rougier, Mikayla Salisbury, Breannah Torres, and Legnal Vargas, and partners Pedro Davilla, Gabe Fernandez, Emma Gomez, Mikey Gomez, Deyvon Hill, Will Madera, Carlos Munix, Antonio Natole, and Omahri Sturdivant.
Taking the reigns as head coach of the unified team meant that Byerwalters would be coaching the two newest sports at AHS in the same season. Byerwalters also is head coach of the Amsterdam girls junior varsity lacrosse team that also just completed its second season, its first with a winning record. Byerwalters has said she is applying for the lacrosse team to be varsity in 2017, and looks forward to improvement in both programs.
“I would do anything for this program,” Byerwalters said.
The Amsterdam unified team (3-3) makes its second straight appearance in sectional play when they face a team they have not played before, Bethlehem, at Amsterdam High School today. The winner will take on Shenendehowa in the next round. Tip time for the game is 4:15pm.