LEARNING TO WIN: Unified Basketball Makes Debut

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PENN LAIRD (WHSV) -- A brand new competition made its debut on Wednesday night at Turner Ashby high school.

The Valley Unified Basketball league, featuring athletes with developmental disabilities, is the first of its kind in Rockingham County. And at Spotswood High School, the team representing the Trailblazers holds a very special place in the heart of an already-busy Valley head coach.

Chris Dodson usually has his plate full with coaching the Spotswood football team and the girls' varsity basketball teams. But he's part of another coaching staff in a league that's teaching all students learn how to win.

"I have the best job in America," Dodson said. "I go to a place where day-in, day-out where kids appreciate you."

Dodson is also a special education teacher at Spotswood and is one of three coaching the school's Valley Unified basketball team.

"To watch these guys out here when they get their jersey, and they make a bucket," Dodson said. "To see the kids helping each other has been so awesome."

Kayley Duveneck is a sophomore on the team, which is made up of a dozen players who are suiting up in the blue and white for Spotswood this year.

"This is a great honor to be here, play with my friends. This is the first time," Duveneck said.

Spotswood will compete against Turner Ashby, Broadway and East Rockingham. Each school will host all four teams at once in a doubleheader before the semifinals and finals are held at Turner Ashby in October. And when the gym doors open, it'll have all the glitz and glamour of a varsity showdown.

"Uniforms, busses, concessions, ticket sales," Spotswood special education teacher Jillian Shifflett said. "We're doing the pep-band, cheerleaders. It's the full experience."

Shifflett will coach the Trailblazers on gameday. But as their teacher, she sees them growing off the court.

"When they get back into the classroom, they take what we did on the court there," Shifflett said. "I think they look at each other now as teammates, not just classmates."

Student volunteers help round out the team's support staff. Dodson says the experience is equally as valuable for them.

"I think they learn to appreciate the gift God gave them. Your athletes often see them performing like they are and they realize a hurt ankle, a bruise here an there isn't so bad," Dodson said. "That's an important lesson."

While the program is about teaching and having fun, the team is focused on one goal -- winning. On the opening night of league play, Spotswood defeated Turner Ashby, 26-22.

"We've got some good teammates. I think we'll be pretty good," Spotswood junior Chance Shifflett said.