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June 13. 2014 10:58PM

NHIAA Unified Volleyball Championship: Winnisquam tops two-time finalist Pembroke

PEMBROKE — Despite not having a boys’ or girls’ varsity volleyball program, Pembroke Academy’s Unified volleyball team has reached the state championship contest in each of the program’s first two seasons.

In fact, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association introduced Unified volleyball as varsity sport prior to the 2013 spring season, and the coed Spartans have experienced marked success, despite finishing runner-up each year, said Kim Bates, one of Pembroke’s coaches.

“It’s really been great for our students with disabilities, socially, and it gives them the opportunity to sort of get out of the classroom and sort of build those connections with their regular education peers, both within the school and after school as well.”

“Team-wise, because you take the partners, which are regular students with the athletes, you have to teach them to be patient and how to work together as a team,” said Melissa Miner, the team’s other head coach. “We’ve been very fortunate because we had returning players from last year come back, and they’re doing that.”

Pembroke fell in the season finale to Winnisquam of Tilton Friday night, 25-9 and 25-13, and though winning isn’t necessarily the main focus on the Unified court, the competitive value of the sport remains, said Bates.

“The students are still very driven to do their best and to win their games,” she said, “but there’s also a lot of what they come in with and building those skills, and building that teamwork is where our focus is.”

Though every athlete on the Unified court falls under certain intellectual disability guidelines, Bates said skill level varies greatly.

“There are certainly kids that are much more athletic, both with and without disabilities, and then there are kids who, in terms of their skill and ability, differ with their visual/spacial skills, and also in their ability to understand and interpret the rules and follow directions,” she said. “You know, a lot of them rely on their peers more to be successful in the volleyball setting, but they’ve all contributed in some ways.”

Pembroke graduates two students, Emma Osborne and Kegan Bean, and also bids farewell to transition students Riley Now, Karen Steele, and TJ Martell, who each turn 21 next season, thus exceeding the NHIAA age limits.

Still, the team is likely to return Zachary Allen, Cheyenne Boucher, Hannah Cunningham, Dakota Devlin, Annabeth Gullo, Amanda Higham, Madison Johnson, Taylor Moyer and Owen Sonsoucie, and both coaches said they’re excited for the team to continue its upward progression.

“I actually coach varsity girls’ volleyball, and have for years, and the competitiveness there is just intense,” said Miner. “To come and do this has just been such a nice relaxation and so much fun. You know, the goal is just to play better and get the kids out there and accomplishing something ... they’re all just amazing kids.”

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