In Allied basketball, high school students with disabilities build skills, bonds

  • Stevenson High School's Allied basketball athlete Jeremy Millman, left, gets help with a practice vest from partner Sean Pokoski, a junior at the Lincolnshire school. The athletes who are in special education programs and student partners who are not build strong relationships on and off the court.

      Stevenson High School's Allied basketball athlete Jeremy Millman, left, gets help with a practice vest from partner Sean Pokoski, a junior at the Lincolnshire school. The athletes who are in special education programs and student partners who are not build strong relationships on and off the court. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Stevenson High School Allied Basketball coaches Emma Degen, second from right, and Ryan Hutchins, right, bring their team together before the start of a game at the Lincolnshire school.

      Stevenson High School Allied Basketball coaches Emma Degen, second from right, and Ryan Hutchins, right, bring their team together before the start of a game at the Lincolnshire school. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Stevenson High School freshman Haylie Popkey, right, gets athlete John Falcon, a freshman in the Allied basketball program, fired up to take a shot during practice at the Lincolnshire school.

      Stevenson High School freshman Haylie Popkey, right, gets athlete John Falcon, a freshman in the Allied basketball program, fired up to take a shot during practice at the Lincolnshire school. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Allied basketball players Tim Phelps (2) and Mark Brady chase down a rebound during a home game against the Mundelein Mustangs at the Lincolnshire school. "I like passing. That's what I contribute because I am always the passer," says Phelps, 20.

      Allied basketball players Tim Phelps (2) and Mark Brady chase down a rebound during a home game against the Mundelein Mustangs at the Lincolnshire school. "I like passing. That's what I contribute because I am always the passer," says Phelps, 20. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Spectators applaud during a Unified Special Olympics basketball game at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

      Spectators applaud during a Unified Special Olympics basketball game at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Allied Basketball freshman athlete Andrew Thornton, second from right, listens to instructions during a practice at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

      Allied Basketball freshman athlete Andrew Thornton, second from right, listens to instructions during a practice at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Stevenson High School athlete and sophomore Gile Pomponi (14) takes a few warm-up shots before an Allied basketball game against Mundelein at the Lincolnshire school.

      Stevenson High School athlete and sophomore Gile Pomponi (14) takes a few warm-up shots before an Allied basketball game against Mundelein at the Lincolnshire school. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/15/2020 7:45 AM

Tim Phelps can be easily described as a team player.

His favorite part of basketball is passing to his teammates, which according to him, keeps everyone involved in the game. Though Phelps sometimes likes to shoot, passing is his contribution on the court.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Phelps, 20, who is in Stevenson High School's transition program for special education students over 18, participates in Stevenson's coed interscholastic Allied sports program. It allows teens and young adults with disabilities to take part in athletics in partnership with other students who are not in the special education programs, with an emphasis on physical fitness, social skills, communication, decision making and relationship building.

The basketball program, in its second year at the Lincolnshire school, is part of the statewide Unified Special Olympics. This year, the number of participants playing basketball more than doubled, to 12 athletes and 19 partners. Bowling, soccer and spirit are the other Allied sports at Stevenson.

Allied basketball player David Ha, left, is guarded by the Mundelein Mustangs' Isaias Hernandez during a Unified Special Olympics game at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
  Allied basketball player David Ha, left, is guarded by the Mundelein Mustangs' Isaias Hernandez during a Unified Special Olympics game at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

This season, Stevenson faced athletes from McHenry, Mundelein, Libertyville and Vernon Hills. The team heads to regional competition Saturday at Metea Valley High School in Aurora. If the team qualifies for state, it will compete March 13 and 14 at the Peoria Civic Center.

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During games, there are three athletes and two partners per team. Referees work the four seven-minute quarters. When a player hit a 3-point shot during one recent game, spectators for both teams cheered.

The program fosters inclusion and gets kids out to play in a competitive environment.

"In Unified basketball, the students are expected to compete, and play defense and score. So it does create a unique opportunity for these kids," said Ryan Hutchins, who coaches along with Emma Degen.

Stevenson High School's Allied basketball coach Emma Degen encourages players from the sidelines during a game at the Lincolnshire school.
  Stevenson High School's Allied basketball coach Emma Degen encourages players from the sidelines during a game at the Lincolnshire school. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Hutchins is a special-education teacher and girls junior varsity golf coach at Stevenson. Degen is an adaptive physical education teacher in Kildeer Countryside Elementary District 96 and Stevenson's girls varsity track and golf coach.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The program bridges a gap between students who are in special ed and those who are not, Hutchins said. Along with that, "it bridges the gap between ages and genders. We have students from our transition program, boys that are 20 years old, and we have students here that are freshmen."

That connection shows in moments such as Allied basketball athlete Jeremy Millman getting help putting on his practice vest from partner Sean Pokoski, a junior, or Allied team member Mikayla Needlman and partner Haylie Popkey, both freshmen, laughing together on the sidelines.

Allied basketball participant Mikayla Needlman, left, shares a laugh with partner Haylie Popkey during a practice at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Both are freshmen.
  Allied basketball participant Mikayla Needlman, left, shares a laugh with partner Haylie Popkey during a practice at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Both are freshmen. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Haylie wants to pursue a career working with people with disabilities.

"I just like to see them have fun. I like interacting with them and being their friend, not just a coach. I want to be with them," Popkey said. "I am definitely going to do it all four years. It's a really good program. And it's very competitive, too."

Jesse Zhou's daughter, Shephia Zhou, is a junior and has played two years of Allied basketball. The Long Grove resident says he likes the teamwork and he's seeing Shephia's skills progress.

"She looks forward to it every day," the father said. "She is really happy with playing the game, playing with friends and seeing her team progress."

Hutchins said academics are the priority in the classroom, but being involved in extracurricular activities is just as important.

Allied basketball athlete and Shephia Zhou, a junior, has plenty of smiles to share on the court at Stevenson High School.
  Allied basketball athlete and Shephia Zhou, a junior, has plenty of smiles to share on the court at Stevenson High School. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

"What makes a game successful is being able to see the partners and athletes interact with each other as friends and have fun doing that while playing the game of basketball. There is a sense of accomplishment for the athletes, often accompanied by their parents enjoying their achievements, that makes the season fulfilling," Hutchins said. "Allied basketball is one of the highlights of my workweek."

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