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Basketball season came early at two Berkshire County high schools this fall as Mount Greylock and Wahconah launched the area's first Unified Basketball programs, a part of the Special Olympics.
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Mount Greylock, Wahconah Add Unified Basketball Teams

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Sports
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Mount Greylock Athletic Director Lindsey von Holtz has been wanting for several years to bring the program to the school. 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock senior Clare Sheedy had some butterflies going into Thursday's basketball practice.
And they had nothing to do with her jump shot.
"Before this practice — and [teammate Jayden Johnson] can attest to this, I was very nervous," Sheedy said after her first workout with the school's new Unified Basketball team. "I was worried I'd say the wrong thing or maybe I'd feel awkward or I wouldn't be a good influence. But the first five minutes, I felt it was going really well. And it was a lot easier than I expected.
"I think working with students of a more diverse unit will be great for us. And for me, not just at school but when I leave, it will be great to have that experience of working with students who aren't necessarily just like me."
Unified Sports, a program of the Special Olympics, allows young people with disabilities a chance to wear their school colors and represent their communities in athletic competitions.
Basketball season came early at two Berkshire County high schools this fall as Mount Greylock and Wahconah launched the area's first Unified Basketball programs.
The advent of the programs follows the success of Wahconah's Unified Track and Field Team from last spring and fulfills an ambition that Mount Greylock Athletic Director Lindsey von Holtz has harbored for a couple of years.
"I heard about it two years ago at an MIAA meeting, and I thought it sounded like a fantastic program," von Holtz said, referring to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which sponsors Unified competition. "I didn't know, Mount Greylock-wise, if we had the people who would be interested in doing it. And that's one of the reasons we started with basketball because it's a smaller number and we wanted to start somewhere.
"As an athletic director, my goal is always participation. Our basketball programs have cuts, so it's obviously not a place where everyone can take part."
On Thursday, von Holtz was running her school's initial practice for regular full-time coach Karen Ducharme. About a dozen middle and high school students — boys and girls, with and without disabilities — worked on their passing and shooting skills and did some scrimmaging for about an hour.
Von Holtz said she and Ducharme, who could not make Thursday's practice, plan also to bring in some "guest appearances" by coaches with more basketball experience to help teach more sport specific skills.
Wahconah's squad won't have to do that. Its coach is Dustin Belcher, the head coach of the school's boys basketball team, which went to the semi-finals of the state sectional tournament last winter.
"I think after watching the Unified Track program and what a wonderful program it was they ran at Wahconah, when [Athletic Director Jared Shannon] approached me and asked about helping start Unified Basketball, it was just a great opportunity for the kids," Belcher said. "Anything to share my love of basketball with them.
"It's an amazing program that's really well established in different parts of the state. We're looking at the model of what other programs do."
Belcher said he had a chance to pick the brains of other Unified Basketball coaches at a preseason meeting facilitated by Kathy Lutz, an administrator at Special Olympics Massachusetts.
Belcher said his squad, which hosts Mount Greylock on Oct. 12 in the teams' season-opener, drew about 14 participants for its first few practices.
He said a handful of the students who came out had experienced from competing with Unified Track in the spring, but others were basketball players who don't have a fall sport and jumped at the chance to get involved.
"It's just an amazing thing to watch what happens when the kids start working with each other," Belcher said.
"Everyone is caught up in the idea that this hasn't happened before and they can help get it off the ground. I've been extremely impressed by the level of dedication from all the athletes. They're there at every practice and ready to go."
Sheedy, who plays lacrosse in the spring at Mount Greylock, said she went as a spectator last spring and watched her friends and classmates embrace the competitive opportunity given to one of the school's special needs students. Though Mount Greylock did not have Unified Track, per se, the track and field program did allow a young special ed student to compete in home meets at Williams College.
"I thought it was really cool that our school was super supportive and including everyone," Sheedy said. "I think it was great, not only for Aiden but for the students at Mount Greylock as well.
"I think he ran the 100 [meters]. Just to see the huge smile on his face when everyone was cheering for him to finish was the most rewarding thing.
"I'm really excited for this season. I think it will be a lot of fun."

Tags: basketball,   high school sports,   Special Olympics,   

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Mount Greylock Committee Hears Concerns About Turf Field Plan

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

Rubber infill from the turf field at Weston Field adheres to a reporter's leg after a minute lying down on the surface to take a photo.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock School Committee last week declined to slow plans for installing an artificial turf field at the middle-high school but members noted that there is still time to weigh health and environmental concerns before shovels go into the ground.
The full School Committee earlier in the spring authorized the Phase 2 grounds subcommittee to put the turf field out to bid this summer.
Since that time, committee members have heard from a number of residents concerned about studies that have linked "infill" materials in used in turf fields to higher rates of cancer and environmental contamination due to runoff from those fields.
"Some of the chemicals found in crumb rubber are known to cause cancer," a fact sheet from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts at Lowell reads in part. "Because of the large number of chemicals present in the infill, as well as the health effects of individual chemicals, crumb rubber made from recycled tires is the option that likely presents the most concerns related to chemical exposures."
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