Portsmouth unified team wins state championship

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PORTSMOUTH — For the key to the Portsmouth Patriots unified basketball team’s state championship win on Saturday, you have to go back to the previous game.

“The game that got us to the playoffs was the nail-biter against Warwick Vets on Thursday in Portsmouth,” said Nancy Fitzgerald, one of the team’s coaches. “We ended up going back and forth, tying the score. They went ahead, then we went ahead, and we finally won by two points.”

The close victory seemed to have shored up the team’s mettle heading into the finals at La Salle Academy in Providence against Chariho High School, she said.

“I think the kids were relaxed,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “They had already gotten their nerves out of their system. They came back from an eight-point deficit (against Warwick Vets) to actually win, so I think that gave them the confidence going into the championship game. They knew if they were down by some points and relaxed and played their game, they were going to be OK.”

The team took its time and waited for the right shot, she said.

“It was a very controlled pace. They passed the ball around. Everyone on the team scored, which was great. Danny Marshall (15 points) and Hayden Therault (11 points) scored a lot, but everyone else contributed as well,” said Ms. Fitzgerald.

The Patriots’ smart and patient play was rewarded with a 39-27 victory over Chariho — and the Division IV state title.

Unified basketball, which allows students with and without intellectual disabilities to play together on the same team, is a varsity sport that falls under the purview of R.I. Interscholastic League in partnership with Special Olympics Rhode Island.

The students with intellectual disabilities are called the players, while the others are the partners who don’t usually shoot but act as mentors and help their teammates get the ball. Three players and two partners are on the court at the same time.

“The partners are a huge part of the team,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who was instrumental in getting a unified basketball team started at PHS in 2011.

She probably won’t be back coaching next year, however.

“I stayed through this year and now that I’m working part-time for Special Olympics, it’s tough,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who retired last year as a physical education teacher at PHS and is now the Project Unify school coordinator for

Special Olympics Rhode Island. “I kind of turned the reigns over to Terry Jones. He’s pretty much running the show this year.”

Although “unfortunately, we’re losing a lot of our kids,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, the unified basketball program should remain strong for next year.

Game stats

Here’s how everyone performed in the big game:

• Danny Marshall: 15 points

• Hayden Therault: 11 points

• Jon McKone-McAndrews: 4 points

• Drew Breede: 3 points

• Andrew Bourquin, Julia Kavanagh and Ryan Costa: 2 points each

Playing great defense for the Patriots were Haleigh McKone, Kenny Boudreau, AJ Labonte, Conlan McDonald and Chris Coutcher.

The team’s coaches are Terry Jones, Donna Ricci, Chris Bowler and Nancy Fitzgerald.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.