WOODBURN – With about two minutes to go in a game last month, the Woodlan Warriors and East Noble Knights were deadlocked on Woodlan's home court, prompting Warriors coach Gary Cobb to call a timeout.
He didn't draw up a complicated play or switch from zone defense to man-to-man. But he would've called a timeout in that situation while coaching his varsity girls team, so he was going to call a timeout for his unified basketball team.
“We're trying to give them a feel of what it's really like to play,” Cobb said. “We made a substitution there, and it gives them a taste. We're playing basketball. We're playing in a game right now.”
With just a few seconds remaining, Olivia Kindler grabbed the ball and made a short jumper to give the Warriors a three-point lead and the Knights missed a buzzer-beater on the other end to give the Warriors, one of the area's newest unified basketball teams, a 46-43 win.
Unified sports are a partnership between schools and the Special Olympics that allow students of all ability levels to play together and represent their high school in competition. The Indiana High School Athletic Association has offered postseason tournaments for unified track and field since 2014 and unified flag football since 2018.
The IHSAA does not have a statewide postseason tournament for unified basketball teams. But Woodlan senior Chris De La Rosa still described the chance to play for a Woodlan basketball team “amazing” and “a blessing.”
“It was probably one of the most competitive games that we've had,” De La Rosa said. “As much as I'm glad that we finally got a win, the Knights, I think a lot of them are going to be great players in the future.”
Woodlan already had a unified track team, but the students decided that this was the year to add Indiana's signature sport to the offerings, and they wanted Cobb, who has coached the girls varsity team for the last seven seasons, to lead the new program, too.
“It's a blast,” Cobb said of coaching the unified team. “Sometimes at the varsity level, you get caught up and everything's intense. You forget how fun the game is and why you decided to play basketball in the first place. When you watch these guys play, it reminds you of why you got involved in basketball. And it doesn't matter if they win or lose. They'll cheer for the other team when they score. That's a love of basketball.”
Several members of the girls varsity team, including Addison Bayman and Taya Kitzmiller, also play with the unified team, and varsity boys players officiated the game against East Noble.
The way Bayman sees it, it's her job to make sure everyone gets to participate and enjoy the game the way she does when she is on the court in a varsity game.
“The athletes dominate the game,” Bayman said. “We're pretty much there to assist them: grabbing the rebounds, passing the ball, getting them up and down the floor. Just working with them.
“We're mainly out there to encourage them to play.”
Bayman was the one who hit the shot that put Woodlan up 40-39 with three minutes to go – but she did so only at De La Rosa's urging.
“I was like, Addy, just make one shot! Just make one shot! She kept passing to everyone else, and I understood that,” De La Rosa said.
Cobb said the new team has gotten support from the entire school, and he is optimistic that the team can grow even larger than the 17-member roster from this year.
“It shows you what Woodlan is about, the community spirit we have and how we're really in this for each other,” Cobb said. “Some of the boys basketball players are out here volunteering their time, and the guys players have been to practice. It's become a schoolwide thing.”