BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — With 30 minutes to go in one of her squad’s preseason practices, head coach Carley Galarneau has her team’s attention. The eyes of the 20-plus players, managers, aides and assistant coaches for the Shenendehowa unified sports basketball team are all on her as she explains an upcoming exercise.
It’s a sliding drill, and Galarneau explains it while crouched into a defensive basketball posture. She is telling the team’s players how it will make them better on defense when she pauses for a second and straightens out of her crouch. It’s time to clear up any confusion for her players — some of whom have learning disabilities — about when this drill will be useful.
“So, when your team doesn’t have the basketball,” Galarneau said.
Galarneau — who played hoops for Schalmont and at Castleton College — is in her second season leading Shenendehowa’s unified basketball team, which started last year as one of 12 teams in a pilot program of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Special Olympics New York. This year, 16 teams will compete in Section II in the program, and the goal remains the same — to bring players from special education backgrounds and the general school population together to play in a competitive environment.
In her past, Galarneau has coached varsity and junior varsity basketball at the high school level. She gave up winter basketball when she became a mother a few years ago, but eagerly took the unified basketball coaching job when athletic director Chris Culnan offered it to her before last season.
“This is how I get my basketball fix now,” she said.
That’s also true for the 20 players on her team, who cannot play for her team if they are varsity basketball athletes. Her team practices twice a week for 90 minutes and its first game comes May 4. Game play features a mix of the two categories of students on the court to play in a contest with traditional high school rules, while a selection of her team’s players compete only in skills challenges that occur at halftime of games.
At those games — the team will play six in the regular season and will have a postseason — the squad is hoping for a large crowd. Shenendehowa has a crew of five people, all of whom compete in the winter as Plainsmen wrestlers, whose job it is to drum up interest within the school community to attend the games. Anthony DiNallo, a junior who also plays football, is one of the members of the group — called the Youth Activation Committee — and said it has a simple goal.
“Our goal is for when they play games, we want them to have a similar environment to when I wrestle or play football,” he said. “That way, they know what it’s like to be on a varsity team.”
While Galarneau sometimes has to slow her practices down to explain the finer points of the game, her squad’s enthusiasm never lacks. Gary Roberts — who graduated last spring and is now in Shenendehowa’s adult transition program — is back for his second season with the team, and his excitement never falters. During warmup drills, he spends a good chunk of time wondering aloud to anyone who will listen about which professional wrestlers he could beat in a match — Brock Lesnar, he speculates, might be too tough for him — but he’s on the team primarily to play hoops, not chat.
“I have a little bit of history [with the game],” said Roberts. “I love the game, man. This is a great opportunity for me to play.”
Nathan Waring is a junior who is in his second season playing for the squad. Before playing for Shenendehowa, he said he never played basketball in an organized setting. After getting the chance to play last season, though, he fell in love with the game so much that he cannot name just one thing as his favorite about the sport.
“I would have to say everything,” he said. “Everything at practice is my favorite.”
Some of the team’s athletes have more athletic experience than players like Waring. Ryan VanGalen is in his second year on the team and served this past fall as the Plainsmen football team’s record-breaking quarterback. A star in the fall for the football team, VanGalen said he is more of a role player in the spring.
“I like to move the ball around and give everyone a chance to dribble, drive and shoot,” he said.
Besides general education students, Galarneau said her team features players with Down syndrome, autism and other conditions.
Before signing up to play with Galarneau’s team, VanGalen said the team’s non-general education athletes were strangers to him.
“When I first did it, I had no idea who any of these kids were,” he said. “Now, I’m close with all of them.”
Such as Jill Wildberger, another player for the team that takes part in the school’s adult transition program. She refers to herself as deaf; while she has some hearing ability and speaks well, she relies heavily on reading lips and sign language to communicate.
At practices, Wildberger has shown some of her teammates the basics of sign language. On the court, she said, her goal is to teach others something else.
“I want to show people I never give up on myself,” she said.
Galarneau said her team’s roster is full of positive people who inspire her and the others that work with them. Leading a unified sports team is not something Galarneau saw herself doing when she started her coaching career, but she said she is glad the job found her.
“Hands down,” she said, “this is the most rewarding coaching experience of my life.”
The 2015 roster for the Shenendehowa unified sports basketball team:
- Francesca Citone
- Matthew Dillon
- Paul Eaves
- Daniel Fagan
- Robert Johnson
- Artur Jurczynski
- Paul Macaluso
- Brendan Marra
- Michael Miner
- Taylor Ray
- Gary Roberts
- Jennifer Sandowski
- Daniel Slater
- Ali Soori
- Nicholas Temperine
- Hunter Tissier
- Charles Valenty
- Ryan VanGalen
- Nathan Waring
- Jill Wildberger
- Carley Galarneau
- Samantha Danson
- Christina de la Rocha
- Sydney Quinn
- Erika Ryan
- Paris Smith
YOUTH ACTIVATION COMMITTEE
- Anthony DiNallo
- Danny DeGennaro
- Kevin Guardino
- Dietrich Hartman
- Kiernan Kaufmann