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Draper Journal

Middle school athletes compete in first state unified basketball tournament

May 08, 2023 08:52AM ● By Julie Slama

In front of a packed gym, an Oquirrh Hills student-athlete brings up the ball in the game. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Hakala)

About 100 athletes and their peer partners packed Jordan High School’s gym for Utah’s first-ever middle school unified basketball tournament.

The middle school unified basketball tournament is modeled much like the early March high school state tournament where three athletes and two partners play together on the court. The ball is shared with everyone on the team and partners help their fellow teammates be successful, said Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator.

“We’re wanting to involve more of our middle schools and also elementary schools in Unified Champion Schools,” Iacobazzi said, adding the progression starts with Sports Days or various games at the elementary level. “Inclusion can happen at a young age. It doesn’t need to be later in life; we want it to start as young as possible. Last spring, we started a middle school unified golf program as more of an individual-type sport that students competed in this past year. Now, we’re adding the team sport of basketball. Our goal is to have 25 middle schools involved next year.”

Seven Canyons and Jordan school districts’ middle schools’ players practiced with their peer tutors since mid-winter for the March 23 tournament. Several schools brought more than one team to the tournament. The teams were set into divisions based on the players’ ability.

“It’s all about inclusion,” Iacobazzi said. “Everyone gets to play; everyone is on the floor dribbling, passing, shooting and being out there, having fun.”

Often during the games, unified sports players will clap or high-five a player after a basket, even when the athlete is on the opposing team. Players break out in an impromptu dance with a big grin on their faces in pure joy, realizing that by being included, they’re an important part of their team and their school, he said.

“For me, middle school was not my favorite time. Middle and junior high is an awkward phase in a student’s life. So, it’s important that we add that inclusiveness, that sense of belonging and inclusion while everyone’s still learning how to be a young adult,” Iacobazzi said.

At the tournament, the division 1 middle school teams squared off, with Mount Jordan Middle 1 taking first place. Second place went to Mountain Creek Middle 2 and third to South Jordan Middle 1.

Oquirrh Hills Middle 1 was the champion of division 2, with South Jordan Middle 2 taking second. Mountain Creek Middle 1 took third and Mt. Jordan Middle 2 took fourth.

In division 3, West Jordan Middle won. Second place was Oquirrh Hills Middle 2, followed by Draper Park Middle and Mt. Jordan Middle 3.

“It was very cool seeing just the level of play and how well the coaches, most of them being special education teachers, had really coached their teams,” he said. “And it was great seeing some of the high school coaches supporting and talking to the middle school players, asking them to be on their team when they reach their schools.”

In addition to the middle school tournament, Special Olympics Utah held a March 24 alternative high school state basketball tournament after more than 70 teams competed for one of the 32 playoff spots.

“We offered this tournament to those teams who didn’t get the chance to play earlier at Weber State,” Iacobazzi said. “We wanted to offer more opportunities than just their one-day region tournament and the state tournament.”

At the March 25 college tournament, four Utah schools competed to advance to nationals. Brigham Young University won and was slated to represent the state April 13-16 in Maryland. It was also the first unified college tournament for the state.

Special Olympics had its state community basketball tournament March 25, which has been held for about 10 years. About 35 teams, with players age 8 years old and up, competed at the University of Utah.

“It’s one of our biggest events; we may have to pattern it after the high school tournament and hold a state and alternate state tournament just to make sure we have enough basketball courts,” Iacobazzi said. “It’s great that so many are wanting and getting the opportunity to play.” λ