Wakefield, Melrose rock the house in first Unified Basketball matchup

The Wakefield Unified Basketball team played against its rival Melrose. (Dan Pawlowski Photo)

Published in the May 13, 2019 edition.


MELROSE — It’s a fun game to play: Name the best Wakefield-Melrose sporting event you’ve ever been to.

How do you choose between generations of epic matchups and stunning conclusions?

Luckily for the packed house at Melrose High School on Thursday afternoon for the first ever Unified Basketball matchup between the two schools, that question became very easy to answer.

This was the best Red Raider-Warrior event thus far.

MATT MARGHERITA scored a big basket in the fourth quarter to bring Wakefield within one. (Dan Pawlowski Photo)

As a fan, it had everything you want in a great basketball game including terrific teamwork, star performances and an exciting ending.

More importantly, as the name rightfully implies, Unified Basketball showed everyone what bringing people together can do.

The concept alone is unique. Bringing together student athletes with and without disabilities certainly encourages inclusion, empathy and respect.

But Unified Basketball proved to be much more. Because for the first time in the history of Wakefield vs. Melrose, there was no away team.

Unified was the crowd.

And that’s what the players remembered most.

“It was fun, it was an awesome crowd,” said Wakefield’s Zach Carito the leading scorer for the Warriors on Thursday.

“We’re having a great season,” said Jayden Christian who said the crowd really helped motivate the team.

It was Wakefield’s second game after they started their inaugural season against the Middlesex League’s third Unified team, Lexington. Expect the number of teams to increase if the turnout of Wakefield players is any indication. The initial roster lists nine. That was doubled in Melrose.

Christian got the Warriors on the board in the first quarter and Hasnaa Labiad scored two big baskets to help Wakefield stay in it against a strong-shooting Melrose team as the score was 17-10 at the half.

Carito took over for Wakefield in the second half, scoring eight points in the third quarter to keep the Warriors within seven points.

Carito followed up a left-handed floater in the lane with another mid range swish as Wakefield was down 31-28 late in the fourth.

Matt Margherita hit a big basket with under a minute to play, creating another epic Wakefield-Melrose ending. Melrose held on, 31-30.

“Kudos to Melrose,” said Wakefield head coach and Director of Special Education, Donna Conlon, who was impressed with the environment for Melrose’s first ever Unified game. “It was a great improvement for us in our second game. Everyone was playing together and having fun.”

“It was an awesome first game,” agreed Melrose head coach Connor Gilbert. “The kids were super excited to get involved, the crowd was awesome; it was a great start and it can only get better from here.”

Unified sports will continue to grow at a rapid pace so long as teams continue to include student athletes from all walks of life.

There are five captains lined up for Wakefield’s two varsity basketball teams next season: Winnie Mylan and Kyleigh Flannigan for the girls and Ryan Marcus, Patrick Collins and Quinn Bayers for the boys.

All of them are playing Unified Basketball.

Not because it looks good on a resume, but because basketball, and all the relationships gained and values cultivated through their time with the sport, has been so important to them, that they believe everyone should experience it in a team environment.

“I think the program is an awesome opportunity for all students to get involved in a great cause and I could not think of a better way to do so than through basketball,” said Marcus. “In sports, working as a team is a major aspect, so opportunities like the Unified Basketball program are a great way to do that.”

“Giving everyone the opportunity to feel included and empowered is really important and I know it means a lot to these kids,” said Wakefield High girls’ basketball coach  Jason Pavey. “I’m very proud of the kids in the Wakefield High basketball program for taking the time. They’ve represented our program very well.”

Athletic Director Brendan Kent worked with Lexington’s Naomi Martin and Stephen Fogarty of Melrose to create the three-team basketball league this spring. Their hope is that it can expand to more sports as soon as possible.

Anyone at the game on Thursday wouldn’t be surprised to see Unified Sports one day blossom into a Middlesex League-wide endeavor.

“Kudos to Brendan Kent for implementing this most worthwhile program that brings together some of our top student athletes with some of our athletically challenged ones to create a unified team that we can all be proud of,” said Wakefield High boys’ basketball coach Brad Simpson. “It is refreshing and inspiring to know that what is gained by all the participants goes far beyond wins and losses.”

Just ask Carito, who didn’t give a typical answer when pressed to talk about the best part of his high-scoring game.

“My favorite part is that all my teammates did a great job,” said Carito. “We have a good team and we’re having fun.”

A fun game to play, indeed.