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Team spirit Dunkirk, Fredonia students earn Unified Sports scholarships

Submitted Photos From left to right: Fredonia students Noah Tarbell, Miriam LaBarr and Ava Rukavina were among the 15 Unified Sports Partners and 7 Unified Athletes across western New York honored at the inaugural Friends of Unified Sports Scholarship Awards Banquet in Williamsville on Saturday.

WILLIAMSVILLE — The power of Unified Sports has created memories that will last a lifetime for the participating athletes and partners across western New York this year.

Now with the Unified Sports seasons complete, a handful of local participants have been recognized with awards as they move forward with the next chapter of their lives.

Unified Athletes Noah Tarbell, of Fredonia, and Blaine Dunn, of Southwestern, were among seven recipients of awards at the inaugural Friends of Unified Sports Scholarship Awards Banquet on Saturday in Williamsville. Additionally, 15 Unified Sports Partners received awards, including Dunkirk senior Zach Zentz and Fredonia seniors Ava Rukavina and Miriam LaBarr.

The Senior-Partner Scholarship is awarded to Unified Sports participants who exhibited sportsmanship on and off the court with teammates and opponents, experienced personal growth through participation in Unified Sports, and gained knowledge in the basic fundamentals of the sports in which they participated. One guest at Saturday’s event said, “There was not a dry eye in the room.”

The purpose of Unified Sports is to unite the student body and the community overall through the power of sports. Unified Athletes — those with unique abilities — are paired with Partners without intellectual disabilities to compete together in the same contest. Western New York supports Unified Sports seasons in bowling, basketball, and bocce, with a few schools piloting a Unified Flag Football team, as well. The sports are lined up to minimize overlap with other Unified Sports, but also to avoid varsity seasons as much as possible to encourage participation from all who wish to play.

Dunkirk High School senior Zach Zentz, middle, is pictured with his Unified teammate Mekiah Sedlacek, right, and Corrie Murray, a representative of Unified Sports.

Creating a space for all throughout the district is something Dunkirk excels at, as it is one of only two schools in western New York to be recognized as a National Unified Champion School through Special Olympics. No one exemplified the school’s efforts to include others better than Zentz, who partnered with Mekiah Sedlacek on Dunkirk’s three-time defending champion Unified Bowling team.

The role of a Partner varies across sports. In Unified Basketball, Partners often pass the ball to the Athletes to take the shot. LaBarr is one of many local Unified Basketball players who played the role perfectly this season. Rukavina excelled in a mentoring role in Unified Basketball and also participated in Unified Flag Football at Fredonia.

In Unified Bowling, Partners team up with Athletes to bowl together as a duo. The team total is what is scored against the opponent. Zentz and Sedlacek teamed up to lead Dunkirk to its third straight title this year, a feat Sedlacek saw coming before the year began. “I’ve got a feeling we’re going to win number three,” he said a month before the season commenced.

As Dunkirk was honored earlier this year with its National Unified Champion School banner, Zentz cheered from the sideline prior to the Dunkirk-Fredonia varsity basketball game that followed the ceremony. He was one of hundreds in the packed gym that heard Sedlacek, his Unified teammate, proclaim, “We’re all best friends here!”

In true form, Sedlacek accompanied his best friend, Zentz, at the banquet to cheer on his partner. Sedlacek stood next to Zentz as he received the award.

Zentz, the Dunkirk Senior Class President and a Fredonia State Baseball commit, stated, “Being part of the Unified Sports program has allowed me to be the person that people are proud of, but most importantly, that I am proud of.”

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