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The Naugatuck High School Unified Sports team poses for a picture after a practice this spring. The program, which pairs athletes with intellectual disabilities with teammates without intellectual disabilities and coaches, was started this year at Naugatuck High and City Hill Middle School. –CONTRIBUTED
The Naugatuck High School Unified Sports team poses for a picture after a practice this spring. The program, which pairs athletes with intellectual disabilities with teammates without intellectual disabilities and coaches, was started this year at Naugatuck High and City Hill Middle School. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck High School Athletic Director Tom Pompei got the ball rolling in a unified effort that brought the first Unified Sports programs to the borough this spring.

Pompei applied for grants through the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the Naugatuck Education Foundation, and the NEF came through with $8,000 to finance this life-altering program for students with special needs.

“The funding allowed to secure uniforms and equipment to start this program that has been a great success,” Pompei said. “On any given day we would have the seven members of our Naugatuck High School Unified team meet out on the practice field with between 15 to 25 varsity athletes for a one-hour session.”

Naugatuck became the seventh school in the Naugatuck Valley League with a Unified team.

“In the fall, we will be competing against the other schools,” Pompei said. “When the Naugatuck varsity soccer team takes on Woodland the two schools’ Unified teams will face each other as well. We will play the same schedule as the varsity teams.”

This new sports endeavor, which is geared towards the development of students with special needs, has also been implemented at City Hill Middle School under the direction of Catherine Molinaro and Naugatuck assistant football coach Tom Tousignant.

The program at Naugatuck High began at the end of April under coaches Courtney Perrotti, a teacher at NHS, and Craig Bruno, who is the head football coach. Athletes Andrew Hiney, Joey Vasquez, Deanna Cairns, Kayleigh Honyotski, Kim SanAngelo, Jessie Lampo and Caitlyn Amentano formed the new Greyhounds team.

Unified Sports pairs athletes with intellectual disabilities with teammates without intellectual disabilities and coaches.

“I think it was a great eye-opening experience for our varsity athletes to interact with the Unified athletes,” Perrotti said. “I think it truly taught the varsity athletes how to be entirely selfless and put their whole focus and effort onto these Unified athletes for one hour.

“The varsity athletes were someone that the Unified team could look up to as mentors,” she continued. “The varsity athletes would run along side the Unified team cheering them on or they would be at the finish line to give them a hand to high five when they crossed the finish line.”

Athletes from a variety of sports stepped up to make the inaugural Unified Sports season at NHS a success. Softball players Jackie Aronin, Lauren Burns, Kelly Murphy and Cameron Caufield gave a hand to the special athletes.

Naugatuck football players Brandon Papp, Logan Bond, Ben Rossi, Tyler Dietelbaum, Josh McFarland, Matt Johnson, Dave Verily, Will Chockey and Joequan White formed a unit of support to give the Unified team confidence and that extra shoulder to lean on.

“This was a great experience for everyone involved,” Bruno said. “It was a great opportunity for the football players to develop their leadership skills. This is an awesome program that is looking to expand in the future.”

With one season in the books, the Unified team is looking to do bigger things in the fall.

“We are looking to expand in the fall with more Unified athletes,” Perrotti said. “We are also looking to get more varsity athletes involved. Athletes like Brandon Papp, who pretty much ran the practices. I loved being a part of this special beginning and look forward to being part of the growth of this program.”