WESTERLY — For a short time Wednesday morning at Westerly High School, every student was part of the Dawg Pound, and that trumped academics.
More than 930 students took time out during the school day, packed Federico Gym and cheered on one of its newest teams — the Unified Volleyball squad.
It was a lot to take in for 20-year-old athlete Ryan Gulluscio, a member of the unified team that played against members of the faculty in an exhibition match.
“It’s the first time to play in front of so many people,” said Gulluscio, who is in his final year in the district’s transition program. “I’m nervous, but everybody’s here, and that’s really good. I can show off my skills.”
The unified sports movement pairs students with special needs, which range from autism to learning and intellectual disabilities, with other student partners on sports teams for training and competition.
The program is meant to break down barriers.
At Westerly High, it’s also building a sense of community.
“The culture at WHS is often defined by its academic rigor,” said Brendan Murphy, the coach of the Bulldogs Unified Volleyball team. An event like the one during Wednesday’s advisory period “gives the student body an opportunity to all be together and just decompress,” he said. “This type of activity builds positive morale throughout the school.”
For senior Mackenzie Beck, the student body’s manner toward its unified teams has been so impressive that she is using it as a pitch to Westerly Middle School students who have special needs.
“I want them to know there’s nothing to be afraid of when they get here, and their transition will be smooth,” said Beck, 17, who is a partner on the unified volleyball team and organized Wednesday’s event. Working with special needs students at the middle school is part of her senior project. “I want special needs students at Westerly Middle to know that we come together as a high school and our whole student body supports everyone.”
Since joining the volleyball team, sophomore athlete Angel Quattromani said she’s had plenty of support.
“It’s fun,” the 15-year-old said. “I met a lot of new friends.”
The Dawg Pound — what Westerly calls its student cheering section at various sporting events — was loud for the exhibition, an energy the Bulldogs hope to feed off as they head into the postseason.
The unified squad “knows what they’re doing, and they don’t want to lose,” physical education and health teacher Sue Haik, who played for the faculty, said. “They were talking trash in a fun way to the faculty squad all week.”
The Unified Volleyball squad is 3-3 and plays host to Bishop Hendricken today at 3:30 p.m.
The Bulldogs will be the No. 1 seed in Division II when the playoffs start next week. They play a semifinal match at Bishop Hendricken on Tuesday at 4:45 p.m. If they win, they will play for the championship on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m. at Johnson and Wales University.
But on Wednesday, their job was unifying a school.
“The unified sports athletes know they have a team on their side,” Beck said. “It’s been life-changing for me, playing on the unified team. They have the biggest hearts and would do anything for anyone. They work just as hard, if not harder than any other athlete.”
To see a photo gallery of Westerly Unified Volleyball, visit http://www.thewesterlysun.com/photosvideo/photogalleries/