By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney students and Special Olympics athletes shared the court Wednesday evening inside the Health and Sports Center on campus.
Spread across the arena floor, the group – about 50 people in total – worked on their shooting, passing, ball handling and defense through a variety of drills. It was the final tune-up before the real fun begins.
When they meet again next week, they’ll officially be teammates playing together in the same 3-on-3 basketball league.
UNK Unified Intramurals is a new partnership with Special Olympics Nebraska that brings college students and individuals with intellectual disabilities together through sports. They compete alongside each other, giving the athletes and unified partners an opportunity to showcase their skills and build new relationships.
“Friendships are a big part of the program,” said Dylan Sendgraff, director of regional field services with Special Olympics Nebraska. “Our athletes love to make friendships with new people.”
So do Lopers like Kali Herbolsheimer.
The UNK junior has been involved with Special Olympics Nebraska since high school, when she was part of a unified sports program at Millard South.
“It’s something I fell in love with,” she said. “Unified sports help build inclusive friendships while providing opportunities for individuals with disabilities to engage with the community.”
Herbolsheimer, a K-12 special education major and president of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, helped bring the program to UNK. She served as a liaison between Special Olympics Nebraska and UNK Campus Recreation and remains involved as a student coordinator.
Kearney has a fantastic disability community, she said, and UNK students were already active in local programs such as Buddy Bowling, TOPSoccer and Special Musicians.
“But I felt like we could use something that’s physically on our campus that’s helping promote inclusion and unified practices,” she added.
Andrew Winscot, assistant director of UNK Campus Recreation, agreed. He called unified sports a natural fit for UNK and the Kearney community.
“We have a really strong intramural program that our students enjoy very much,” Winscot said. “Since we have such an active, vibrant student body, we’re always looking for other ways for them to get involved and give back to the community. So we thought, just culturally, it fit UNK.”
UNK Unified Intramurals launched last semester with a couple events – a yard games social that gave students and Special Olympics athletes a chance to meet each other and a skills clinic led by the Loper men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The 3-on-3 basketball league that starts next week is open to Special Olympics athletes 18 and older and all UNK students.
“You don’t have to be an intramural all-star to participate in this. It’s just a great opportunity for students to get outside their comfort zone, meet people in the community and give back,” said Winscot, who hopes to see the program grow into a 5-on-5, full-court league.
Other sports, such as flag football, soccer and volleyball, are likely coming, too.
“Our goal is to add more sports based on interest from the athletes,” Winscot said.
Sendgraff also wants to see the partnership continue to grow.
“We’re just trying to get everyone on the same playing field and make sure everybody is included,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience to be part of a program like this.”
The UNK Unified Intramurals basketball league continues through March 8. Games are played 7-8 p.m. Wednesdays at Buckle Court inside the Health and Sports Center on campus.
UNK students can sign up on the Campus Recreation website. For more information on Special Olympics Nebraska, visit sone.org.