Program unites athletes

Naugatuck High School senior Kim SanAngelo, left, takes a shot with fellow student Jackie Aronin offering support during a recent Unified basketball practice at the school. –KEN MORSE

Naugatuck High School senior Kim SanAngelo, left, takes a shot with fellow student Jackie Aronin offering support during a recent Unified basketball practice at the school. –KEN MORSE

When it comes to Unified Sports, points are not accumulated and win-loss records are not kept. But, what is recorded is the life-changing moments that become cherished memories for all those involved.

The Unified Sports program, which has been in Connecticut since 1992, is designed for the development of students with special needs. It pairs athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on sports teams for training and competition.

The first Naugatuck Valley League team to start a Unified Sports program was Wilby High School of Waterbury in 2010. Three years later, the NVL added the Unified games to its official roster of sports.

Last spring, Naugatuck High School became the 13th team in the NVL to start a Unified Sports program.

Former Naugatuck Athletic Director Tom Pompei was the catalyst for starting the program at NHS. He applied for grants through the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the Naugatuck Education Foundation to begin the program.

The Unified Sports program, which recently concluded its basketball season with an NVL tournament in Torrington, has been well received at NHS.

“It gives these kids a place to come to be part of a team and interact with the other student-athletes in the school,” said NHS teacher Courtney Perrotti during a recent basketball practice.

Perrotti and Naugatuck head football coach Craig Bruno are in charge of the afterschool program that practices or has games on Thursdays throughout the school year.

“We have between 10 to 12 volunteer peer helpers to help these kids,” Perrotti said. “It’s mainly football players, but girls basketball and softball player Jackie Aronin is here every Thursday and the kids have come to know her and feel comfortable when she’s around.”

For Aronin, Unified Sports is a program that is dear to her heart.

“I have a brother with special needs,” Aronin said. “So the Unified program is very important to me. We usually have about six helpers on any given day and the kids just love to come here.”

Along with Aronin, Naugatuck football players Brandon Papp, David Verrilli, Tyler Dietelbaum, Mike Plasky, Matt Johnson, Ben Rossi and Devon Biancarelli help out the Unified athletes.

During a recent practice session, Aronin led a group of players in a basketball shoot-around and the athletes were having a great time representing Naugatuck High School on the basketball court.

“It’s nice and I really like it,” Naugatuck junior Joseph Thiel said. “I also play in the Special Olympics and I’m real good at basketball.”

Naugatuck High School senior Caitlyn Armentano, left, high fives fellow student Brandon Papp during a recent Unified basketball practice at the school. –KEN MORSE

Naugatuck High School senior Caitlyn Armentano, left, high fives fellow student Brandon Papp during a recent Unified basketball practice at the school. –KEN MORSE

The Naugatuck team consists of seniors Kim SanAngelo, Jessie Lampo, Caitlyn Armentano, Kyle Trenton and Joseph Vasquez; juniors Andrew Hiney and Joseph Thiel; sophomore Kaleigh Honoyotski; and freshmen Brandon Minnix, Spencer Noss, Robert Frennesson and Julian Giraldo.

In its first year at NHS, Aronin can already see the impact the program has had and is eagerly awaiting the spring season.

“I can see how the kids respond,” Aronin said. “I think a program like this is a real confidence booster. We will be getting ready to head outdoors for the spring track schedule.”

When the NVL officially added Unified Sports to its roster of games in 2013, Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls was among the six league schools that offered the program. Woodland introduced the Unified Sports program in 2009.

“We offer it as an opportunity for kids who might not otherwise have a chance to play a sport to get involved in athletics. It is also a great way for students with disabilities to get involved in school activities with their non-disabled peers,” Woodland Athletic Director Brian Fell said. It has been a very successful program, which has been well received and supported by our entire student population. It is always exciting to see a gym full of fans cheering and supporting the efforts of the Unified Sports athletes. And even more exciting to see the growth of both the athletes and partners through their work together.”

George Meyers, a school psychologist at Woodland, started the program at the school and guides it as head coach. Meyers could not be reached for comment.

The members of the Woodland Unified team are Michael Pec, Thomas Giarratona, Matthew Kalita, Adam Jordan, Justin Garafano Michael Englund, Sean Skehan, Carmen Melchionne and Matthew Campbell. The student-volunteer peer partners are student-athletes Veronica Moscariello, Jacob Copes, Olivia Rua, Christopher Sticco and Ivan Cruz.