Unified Athletes Thrill Fans in Home Finale
On Tuesday afternoon, Eastchester’s Unified Basketball team took the court in front of throngs of raucous fans, playing in its final home game of the spring season. And while the game was a great success by any measure—the Eagles came away with a thrilling 60-55 win over visiting Mahopac—it proved to be an especially touching example of the Eastchester community’s willingness to rally behind its Unified athletes.
Unified Athletics—an inclusive sports program that partners athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities in a team setting—launched in Eastchester last spring, offering participants a chance to compete against other area schools. Since the program’s inception in 2022, Eastchester has added another Unified program—varsity bowling—to complement its yearly offerings.
Junior Matt Bellach, a member of the Unified Basketball team who has been a driving force behind fundraising efforts for the Special Olympics and Eastchester SEPTA over the last two years*, said it was exciting to see the bleachers filled with parents, family and friends voicing their full support of the Unified athletes.
“It was really great to see everyone here, it was a much better turnout than last year and a much better turnout than I expected,” said Bellach. “It was heartwarming to see everyone come together for a good cause, and that’s really what this whole program is about.”
Bellach pointed to the final seconds of the game—when a Mahopac player hit a buzzer-beating shot to send fans from both sides into wild applause—as a perfect encapsulation of the main theme of the day.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what matters is that you saw people coming together for both Eastchester and Mahopac,” he said. “No matter what team makes the shot, you have to cheer for them.”
Eastchester Athletic Director Brad Gitlin concurred with Bellach’s sentiments and thanked district administrators and other community groups for making days like Tuesday possible.
“If this doesn’t epitomize school spirit, I don’t know what does, and it’s all about the partnerships we have that made this successful.” said Gitlin. “The PTAs, our Sports Club, and our SEPTA, along with the Special Education Department, made this happen, because if it wasn’t for them, it would be that much more difficult for the Athletic Department to get something like this off the ground.”
As the team celebrates its 2023 campaign, head coach John Gibson says that—as is often the case with athletics—the lessons and skills that students will take away from their time in the program go far beyond the hardwood.
“It’s not necessarily about winning, it’s about playing as a team and I’ve seen all these kids grow up a lot in a lot of good ways,” said Gibson. “I think this helps them to focus at school, it helps them focus on helping other people; I think you see that these are good kids, but now, what’s at the forefront of their mind is the idea of kindness.”
For more photos from the Unified Basketball home finale, click HERE
*Prior to Tuesday's game, Bellach was recognized for his fundraising work by Westchester County Legislator Damon Maher. In addition, Thursday, May 25, was declared "Matt Bellach Day" in Westchester County.