CENTRAL FALLS — Up until the final four-plus minutes, it had been a tight contest between two fierce combatants, each hustling up and down the court to muster a victory.
No one wanted that “W” more than Central Falls High senior Yeire Cepeda. Honestly, it couldn't have been more obvious.
During the course of this hoop contest against Mount Pleasant inside the Warriors' jam-packed gym on Wednesday afternoon, Cepeda looked disgruntled at times with several turnovers, failures to snatch a critical rebound or inability to drop a necessary basket.
He made it known on a couple of occasions, one in particular midway through the second half. After head coach Manny Silva had replaced him with a teammate, he walked angrily to a water fountain, took a few sips and returned to the bench determined to make amends on his next call.
When Cepeda re-entered, his demeanor changed. Undaunted, and with the Warriors nursing a one-point lead, he turned a steal into a layup with 4:11 left, then took a pass from junior Jason Almeida 19 seconds later and canned a short jumper.
That had given his C.F. bunch a 48-43 cushion.
Down the stretch, he canned a trey, then dropped a running one-hander before draining a putback with 16.3 seconds left to pace his Warrior teammates to a thrilling 57-51 triumph over the Kilties.
“The last time we played them, we lost, and here, we wanted to prove we could beat them,” stated Cepeda, who had notched a game-high 25 points to lead his squad, which pushed its regular-season mark to 2-1. “I kept thinking, 'We've got to win this! We've got to win this!'”
When asked if he felt like a hero, he simply said, “No, because I'm a basketball player. I watch the NBA on TV all the time; that's how I learned how to play. I'm proud to be a unified basketball player. This had a lot to do with my teammates.”
This wasn't the usual varsity hoop game, but it had the look and feel to it. Yes, several of his teammates and foes have intellectual disabilities, but players on both sides took it so seriously that they would sulk after a chance gone awry or revel in a stellar three-point bomb.
Disability? What disability?
Excepting officials not calling an occasional travel or double-dribble infraction, it still produced the fervor of a a typical varsity tilt, and that's just what Silva, assistant Katie Gomes, numerous “able-minded” teammates (called partners) and volunteers strive for within this unified competitive league.
“That was a close one; the game kept going back and forth, but we found a way to pull it out in the end,” offered Silva after the triumph. “Coaching unified, I try to get across to the athletes that one team has to win and the other has to lose, but – at the end of the day – everyone's a winner.
“I talk to the kids all the time about just going out there and having fun; they need to play defense first, and then let the offense come to you,” he continued. “I really enjoy doing this, and it's because I enjoy coaching. Any sport, any game, whatever it is, I love giving back, and they all know I'm there for them.”
Unified hoop at CFHS began five years ago on the whim of former special education teacher Bobby Marchand and Gomes, the latter claimed.
“Bob and I started this, and it wasn't much back then, but it's grown a lot,” explained Gomes, a Woonsocket High graduate now working as a special educator at Central Falls. “There were special needs kids begging to play, and we wanted to give them something to look forward to. Their skills weren't fantastic then, but they've improved 10-fold.
“More importantly, these young people have developed very strong friendships and relationships, and I'm excited about that,” she added. “It gives me a sense of pride. They all want to compete, just like the varsity athletes. They want to score, they want to pull down the rebound and run down the floor to grab a pass.”
For those who may not know much about unified basketball, the rules are rather simple. Just like any other interscholastic hoop contest, each team fields five players.
In this, however, three athletes (or those with special needs) join two partners (who are intellectually-abled), and the ultimate goal is for the athletes to do most of the scoring, rebounding, etc.
The National Federation of High Schools dictate that they should play 16-minute halves (as opposed to 20 for JV and varsity tilts); that everyone on each bench must play a meaningful amount of minutes; no possession shot clock be involved; and that partners score no more than 50 percent of the points throughout.
Likewise, no varsity of JV hoopsters may compete for their school, though other athletes – those involved with football, baseball, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field and the like – may. Each squad must maintain a maximum of 16 players, with eight or nine roster spots going to those with intellectual disabilities and the other seven or eight to those without.
“Originally, it was hard to find partners, but not anymore,” Gomes indicated. “They all love it. They want to help these kids succeed, to do well. After all, they're all high school students, and most of them love sports. That's a common denominator right there.”
Junior guard/partner Jason Almeida-Araujo is one of them. He didn't have to sign up to play unified, but he had an impetus – his cousin, classmate Rosario Almeida (who notched 21 points on this day).
“I just wanted to help out,” noted Jason, who represents the Warriors' football and outdoor track and field squads. “He's a unified player, and I wanted to help him and the team, but I also wanted to give back to the school.
“I don't want anything out of this; it just makes me feel good to see other people happy, doing great things.”
Mentioned junior Karomlay Osorio, another junior guard/partner and a member of the girls' varsity volleyball program: “I really wanted to get involved with a unified team; I wanted to gain experience and know what happens with the special athletes. This is only my first year, though I really like it. At first, I thought it would be a little weird and uncomfortable.
“The first time we were out here (on the court for a practice), I felt like an outcast because I didn't know much about basketball,” she added. “But once I got to know the people and how much they like it – the athletes and the partners – it was all really cool. When I have a career someday, I think I'd love to work with special athletes as a side job. I've learned a lot.”
Warriors' boys' varsity basketball mentor and high school English teacher Brian Crookes watched intently at the goings-on, and he had every reason.
“I'm a huge fan of unified hoop; I was actually a partner about 15 years ago at the Fogarty Center in North Providence, and I learned so much,” he stated. “It's so rewarding to work with the athletes and see them have success.
“Look at these kids; man, they can play,” he continued as senior forward Carlos Rivera rushed down the floor for a layup. “I work with Carlos in the classroom. You know he went with his partner, (junior) Sebastian Zuleta, to Washington, D.C. for a Project Unity event in early March? They both went to represent our high school and Rhode Island at the unified sports conference.”
Noted Gomes: “At one point during that trip, Carlos, the athlete, told me his partner, Sebastian, was his best friend. That's what it's all about – getting the athletes and the partners, the entire school, involved with unified.
“I'm beyond impressed with the inclusion that takes place in the classrooms, the hallways, the lunchroom and throughout the community,” she added. “Everyone really backs this.”
At that very moment, massive senior forward Luis Rosario took a pass from his partner, sophomore Gina Mendoza, and prepared to put up perhaps a six-footer. The Kilties were ready, standing with hands up, but they didn't try to knock the ball out of his hands. Instead, they waited for the 21-year-old to put up his one-hander, one that tickled the twine.
As soon as the bucket hit the floor, the wide-eyed Mendoza grinned, then took Mendoza's hand for the jaunt back down the floor for a bit of defensive pressure.
“That's typical,” Gomes laughed. “These kids, regardless of the team, are all about sportsmanship. That's what's so rewarding. You see a kid like Luis score and get so excited about it. It's fantastic!”
As for the crowd of students, they were given added incentive to spend a buck for admission: First, it was a chance to miss a class (how typical!); but, second, they had the opportunity to win a free pass to any 2014-15 athletic event by backing their team.
Athletic director Anthony Ficocelli was supposed to announce two victors at halftime, but he opted for a third; he did so via the numbers on the 300 or so fans' tickets.
And why not? He did so in the spirit of the fine event taking place.
“I have three kids on my team who can't play, but they chose to be involved anyway,” Crookes offered. He pointed at seniors Elser Colindres and Brad Zeno, not to mention freshman Jose Alvarado, barking out orders by the team bench and remarked, “They don't get anything out of it except gaining the satisfaction of helping the athletes out with their skills, telling them how to play defense. I'll tell you, I'm proud of them.”
After the win, Rosario Almeida could barely contain his thrill.
“This feels great! I love playing, and it's because I choose to. I'm a unified athlete, and I want to play with and help the kids in my class and school. I just love basketball; it's so fun. I have a lot of fun with my teammates.”
Added junior forward Andrew Cornell: “I'm here because I wanted to play ball with a team and help them win. This is good. I thought we played alright. Yeire surprised me with so many baskets at the end. He tricked (the Kilties) out with all of his moves. That's how he scored.
“He came up big for us.”
No question about it, but didn't they all?