January 18, 2012BETHLEHEM — Thirty minutes until the season opener and Matt Wessels already wears his game face. The Plymouth Bobcats charter bus pulls to a halt in Profile School's parking lot and players slowly trickle toward the gymnasium. Wessels casts a wary eye toward the Bobcats as they walk to their end of the floor. Wessels' sneakers: $39.95. The Special Olympics grant for Profile's Unified Sports basketball team: $2,000. The chance for Wessels to represent the Patriots on his home floor in front of roaring crowd: Priceless.
Three weeks ago Wessels didn't know teammate Ben Mulkigian from Ben Franklin — two ships passing through Profile School's hallways.
"I didn't really see him very much. He's pretty much in a special-needs room," Mulkigian said. "I don't see him very much at school at all."
Wessels and Mulkigian are seeing more of each other these days thanks to the inaugural year of the NHIAA's Unified Sports program. Wessels was recruited by Profile's athletic director, Jack Bartlett, who also sits on the Unified Sports Committee.
"It's actually fun," said Wessels, a sophomore. "I kind of like it."
Students who never normally cross paths interact on the Unified team. The squad is an amalgam of special-needs students like Wessels and "partners" like Mulkigian, a standout soccer player on Profile's varsity soccer team. Taylor Woodward — the ace of the Patriots golf team — also suited up against Plymouth.
Profile's four-game regular season kicked off with the opener against the Bobcats on Jan. 9. A post-season tournament for New Hampshire's 18 Unified teams is slated to begin on Feb. 7. The league's championship game is scheduled for March 10 at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester — but that's all down the road. For now Wessels just wants a victory against the Bobcats.
"Today's our first game so that'd be good for us," Wessels said.
Opening tipoff nears as Wessels, Mulkigian and Woodward warm up on Profile's end of the court. In just two weeks of practice Wessels has warmed to his new "partners." Regardless of the final score the outcome is clear.
"In a world of inclusion it's important for every single kid to feel like they're part of the school and take pride in it," said Mike Kelley, Profile's principal and also the head coach of the Patriots Unified team. "Matt's been talking to me for two weeks — every single day — asking about what time practice is and what time's the game. It's got him really excited to be here and really part of the community. At Profile our philosophy has always been — win or lose — that participation is just as important as winning the game. We also are consistent about our values — why we're doing it. So I think that's more important than the win-loss stuff."
One important thing Wessels learned is Mulkigian has a decent jump shot for a soccer player.
"Ben, I realize he's real good at it," Wessels said.
Unconcerned with the finer points of the game — he's just looking to score against Plymouth and has his technique down cold.
"I don't know, it's like — I just watch basketball and know how to shoot, basically," Wessels said.
That's more than enough skill for Mulkigian to work with and he'll spend most of the game trying to feed Wessels inside the lane for buckets from close range.
"I just try to have fun with him and have them have a good experience with the whole Unified basketball thing," said Mulkigian, a senior. "I don't really try to teach them anything. I just try to give them a good time — that's pretty much it."
The "good time" rebounds right back.
"It's a really rewarding experience for sure and I'm really glad I did it," Mulkigian said. "A ton of these kids wouldn't have had a chance of really playing basketball. You get to have fun once a week and play basketball."
Mulkigian proudly wore his blue-and-white Profile soccer jersey and knows Wessels feels the same way — and wants to win just as badly.
"It gives them an opportunity to do something that they normally wouldn't," Mulkigian said. "We've got to get the 'W' today."
Wessels sinks several baskets for the Patriots but the "W" proves elusive as they fall by 10 points to the Bobcats. Lin-Wood principal Bob Nelson — also a certified NHIAA basketball official — bends the rules as the out-of-bounds lines seem suggestions and dribbling appears optional.
The final tally reads Plymouth 36, Profile 26. Wessels still wears his game face as he walks off the court with Mulkigian and Woodward at his side. A Profile loss? — merely a matter of opinion — some results never make the scorebook.
"That's the whole point of having partners — one, they get a special feeling for helping. Now they'll see Matt in the hallway and they'll say 'Hey Matt, how's it going?' And they never would have done that three weeks ago," said coach Kelley. "And the special-needs population also gets a feeling like 'I really belong and I've got a friend now. And I've got someone I can talk to.' "