Rubber soles squeaked against wooden floorboards at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School gymnasium Thursday as the Vineyard Unified Basketball team took on the Falmouth Clippers. The game was the last of the season for the regional high school’s Special Olympics basketball program, with players from the special education program teaming up with basketball players from the rest of the school.

It was also a day of recognition, with members of the Special Olympics organization on hand to bestow “national banner recognition” status for the program started in 2019 by Ryan Kent, the school’s Special Olympics liaison.

The regional high school is one of more than 325 schools in Massachusetts participating in Unified Champion Schools programming and 8,300 schools take part nationwide.

“This is the highest level of achievement within the unified champion school movement,” said Denise Larrabee, manager of the state Special Olympics Inclusive Schools Program, during the recognition ceremony at halftime. The regional high school is one of just 22 schools in Massachusetts to receive the distinction.

Regional high school students turned out to cheer and play. — Ray Ewing

“You have built a solid foundation and created this environment here on Martha’s Vineyard,” she said. “This is an award not just for your athletes and partners...but for all of you here today, the whole school. You epitomize what it means to play and live unified.”

School principal Sara Dingledy also spoke at the ceremony, saying the unified players “really represent who we aspire to be as a school.”

It was a spirited game against Falmouth, with the Vineyard taking an early lead of 25-22 by halftime. But the score narrowed in the second half, in a one-point game that had both teams trading the lead.

Falmouth eventually pulled away to take the game, 43-48.

For Mr. Kent, the ceremony was the culmination of a years-long success story.  

Denise Larrabee, manager of the state Special Olympics Inclusive Schools Program, read the award at Thursday's game. — Ray Ewing

“The program is really to build and promote inclusion, not just for the students but for the staff and community,” he said, naming Kevin McGrath and coach Ellen Muir as key to the team’s success. Mr. Kent, meanwhile, donned the black-and-white stripes to referee the home game, their last of their season.

“It’s been a complete blast, everyone has so much fun at these games,” he said, and indeed the stands were packed with supportive students and families. Signs of “Let’s Go #32” and “We Heart Julie” filled the bleachers, and the football team arrived in uniform to cheer on the players.

Cheers erupted each time either team scored the goal.

When the final buzzer sounded, handshakes and “good games” were exchanged, and it was time to pack up and wait for the next year.