Portsmouth's unified volleyball team undefeated

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PORTSMOUTH — Ask Ryan Costa what he likes better — volleyball or basketball — and he responds like a true diplomat.

"Both," said Ryan, right after his Portsmouth High School unified volleyball team defeated Cumberland Wednesday. Ryan is also a member of the unified basketball team, which starts play in March.

“I think this team’s good. We’re in good shape. We’re undefeated," said Ryan, who likes spiking the ball the best.

Indeed, the team was 5-0 after beating Cumberland and on top of Division 1 Northern. Its next home game is Wednesday, Oct. 23, against Woonsocket, and the playoffs starts only a few days after that.

In unified sports, students with and without intellectual disabilities play together on the same team. The varsity sports program falls under the purview of the R.I. Interscholastic League (RIIL) in partnership with R.I. Special Olympics.

Portsmouth has had a unified program since 2011, offering volleyball in the fall and basketball in the spring. Donna Ricci, coach of the unified volleyball team along with Nancy Fitzgerald, started out coaching freshman girls' basketball.

“They discontinued that," Ms. Ricci said, noting that there was a lack of team around the state. "So I, with Nancy, started up our unified program.”

Half of a team is made up of athletes who have intellectual disabilities, while the other members are "partners," or student helpers. Many of the same athletes play volleyball and basketball, but the partners change because they usually play other varsity sports.

“Some of the kids that are on our team now, play baseball," said Ms. Fitzgerald. "And some of our football kids are playing basketball. And then we have some girls who are not involved in any sports who play for us.”

Now in its second year, the unified volleyball team has shown great chemistry, said Ms. Ricci, a 14-year health and physical education teacher at PHS who also coaches the junior varsity girls' volleyball team.

“They’re working very well together. We stress three hits, a lot of passing. Our serving has become much better," she said.

Unified volleyball teams play three games to 25 points, regardless of the outcome of the first two games. Against Cumberland, for example, Portsmouth won the first two games but lost the third.

“For the third game, our players kind of know to take it down a notch a little bit — make it fair for the other team," said Ms. Ricci. "We’re here to enjoy it. We have the victory now; let’s really work on our passing.”

Big heads in the stands

The team has plenty of support, as friends and family members filled a good portion of the stands in the PHS gym during the Cumberland match-up. Many of them were waving "big head" replicas of each Portsmouth athlete. They were made by Ms. Fitzgerald, who retired last spring as chairwoman of the Health & Physical Education Department at PHS but has had trouble saying goodbye for good.

“I’m still coaching unified," she said. "It’s sort of my baby, so I’ve had trouble letting it go. I’ve coached most of these kids and I’m kind of waiting for most of them to graduate.”

“We’re not letting you go,” interjected Ms. Ricci. “We’re not cutting the cord yet.”

For more information about unified sports programs, visit www.rihssports.com.

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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.