PINE PLAINS, N.Y. – Tyler Parrotte was red hot, sinking mid-range jumpers to the delight of his audience at Stissing Mountain High School.
Most of his baskets were banked in off the backboard, but he did swish a couple. With the help of his unofficial shooting coach, of course.
“A little to the left … Put more arch on the shot … Aim it a little higher,” cheerleader Haleigh Rockefeller called out.
Parrotte listened intently and executed those instructions. The roars of the home crowd reached a crescendo with four minutes left in the fourth quarter on Thursday, when the Stissing Mountain sophomore hit a shot from behind the free-throw line.
It was easy to forget that Parrotte is blind.
“I can get around pretty well,” the 16-year-old said during a head-turning pregame shootaround. “I was born like this so I’m used to it.”
But he certainly wasn’t used to this: Being a member of a varsity basketball team.
Pine Plains is among six school districts in Section 9 that encompass the Unified Basketball League, which provides special needs students a platform to play competitively. On these co-ed rosters, children with disabilities are paired with non-special needs students who volunteer to serve as teammates and assistants.
Pine Plains’ team includes 11 players — nine on the active roster — and their uniforms are identical to those of the winter varsity basketball teams. The games are regulation length with standard rules, though coaches and teammates are permitted to intercede and offer instructions.
During a scrimmage last week, 12th-grader Ken Wheeler helped Parrotte maneuver the court and put him in positions to shoot. During the league’s inaugural game on Thursday, it was Rockefeller. She is also his shooting coach and his figurative eyes on the court.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association spearheaded the initiative and reached out to interested schools last spring. The league was formed in September and practices for Pine Plains began in March. It’s a full-fledged varsity sport, sanctioned by the state.
“I wanted to get my school involved immediately,” said Rich Silverstein, Pine Plains’ director of athletics who also is the chairman of the Section 9 Unified Basketball League. “Our special needs students who don’t typically have a chance to play on a team, they have their own basketball program now. It’s exciting for them and for us.”
A basketball community
It’s an exciting time for the area as a whole, as it pertains to basketball. Elizaville’s Tyler Lydon, who starred for Pine Plains and whose younger brothers attend the school, is entering the NBA draft. And the Pine Plains girls basketball team captured a third consecutive Section 9 championship in March.
“This is a basketball-loving community,” Silverstein said. “We’re hopeful that positive energy (Lydon) and his family have generated here will rub off on this league as well, and we’ll feed off it.”
The league’s season will run three weeks, featuring five games, and culminates in a tournament at Monroe-Woodbury High School on May 24, to be followed by an awards ceremony.
The Bombers lost to Rondout Valley, 49-48, in the opener Thursday, but the result mattered little to those involved — or to the hundred or so fans who applauded vigorously throughout.
“We’re extremely proud of this and happy to be doing it,” said Bombers coach Larry Strickland, who also helms the volleyball team. “All the support we’ve received, it speaks to a good sense of community in this school and I’m glad to be part of this.”
Pine Plains hosts Newburgh in its second game at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday before visiting Monroe-Woodbury on Thursday. Middletown and Valley Central are also part of the league.
NYSPHSAA has established a unified bowling league, too, though no area school is yet involved. Silverstein said since the league started, he has heard from several interested administrators, which gives him hope the sport will soon expand.
“It’s a great experience and something I’d recommend for everyone,” said Wheeler, a former varsity baseball player. His seventh-grade brother Hunter Wheeler is also a team member and assistant. “I’ve played on teams, but this is unique and really fulfilling.”