John Wognun learned a timeless lesson from his first season playing for the Smoky Hill High School Unified Basketball team.
Wognum, a junior, spoke words that countless athletes from countless sports have uttered as long as humans have banded together to play competitive games. While the adage may feel familiar, its value was immediate and important for Wognum, who worked with his fellow students and athletes to take home the state championship title for Smoky Hill in March for the fourth year in a row.
"There's no 'I' in 'team,'" Wognum said. "We all make this possible."
Indeed, the Unified team's fourth straight championship title came as a result of teamwork in the truest sense. In addition to the collaboration that takes place between the team's16 players, all Unified tournaments pair students with intellectual or physical disabilities and their typically developing peers. That means that the action on the court features players and designated "helpers," athletes often involved in other sports who volunteer to help their counterparts on the Unified squad. Add to that the work of the coaches, the cheerleaders and the boosters, and the sport exemplifies the best brand of sportsmanship.
The team is part of the wider Project UNIFY movement. Like other similar teams across the state and the country, the Grandview and Smoky Hill teams have partnered with the Special Olympics to offer athletic opportunities to students with a wide range of needs and a wide range of skills. Every school in the Cherry Creek School District hosts its own Unified basketball team, thanks in part to financial support from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation and other community organizations.
Since the program kicked off at Smoky Hill four years ago, all members of the Unified team have taken a deep pride in that kind of teamwork, and their commitment to the sport has paid off in a quartet of state championship titles. The team picked up their latest gold medals following a nail-biter series against Brighton and Poudre high schools held at the Denver Coliseum in March. The championships represented the pinnacle of a long journey for players, helpers, cheerleaders and coaches alike, a journey that encapsulated the most important lessons of the sport.
"I want them to learn the thrill of victory and the lessons of defeat, to walk with their heads up no matter what," said Smoky Hill Unified Coach Ron Charleston. "Win or lose, they should always be proud."
Such guidelines have steered the team's athletes to other accomplishments. Sophomore Danny Trout, for example, has drawn inspiration from his two years on the Smoky Hill Unified team, racking up impressive achievements on the school's baseball squad. Trout has found a confidence in his time on the Unified team – he's uncovered friendships with fellow players and helpers that has deepened his entire high school experience.
"I was nervous when I started," Trout said, adding that the friendships he forged in Unified have had an effect on his everyday experience at the school. "We talk, hang out and eat lunch together … We give each other high fives in the hallways."
The team's helpers have discovered similar high points during their time with the Unified team. Seniors Maurice Wyatt and Karson Avila, both accomplished football players who've earned athletic scholarships to college next year, have gained important insights from their time on the team. The seriousness and stress that's been a part of their own athletic careers have melted away during their time with the Unified team – win or lose, the pair found joy watching the team take part in the purest kind of competition.
"It's been a great experience," Avila said. "Being able to see everybody's smile ... it's like actually playing basketball with them."
Wyatt added that the games, the players and the road to the championship have taught him broader lessons about teamwork that he'll carry with him when he heads to college next year.
"These guys have taught me to enjoy the sport," Wyatt said. "It's humbling."
2017 Project Unify Basketball Roster – Smoky Hill High School Buffaloes
Head Coach: Ron Charleston
Assistant Coach/Project Unify Coordinator: Kelton Coppinger
Athletic Director: John Thompson
Principal: Chuck Puga
Unified Cheerleaders: Alexis Spinuzzi
Unified Cheer Coach: Rachel Reese
Cheer Partners: Delanee Grosshans, Kennedy Reed