SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake High School gymnasium was packed and filled with students, teachers, staff and fans on Wednesday afternoon cheering as loudly as they could.
The entire student body watched the school’s unified basketball team — a team dedicated to unifying students with and without learning disabilities — lay it all on the line against the Peru Nighthawks in four quarters of inspired basketball.
“The student body for the last two weeks, I’ve heard nothing but everybody was getting ready for that, they couldn’t wait to see them,” Red Storm unified coach Patrick Kissel said. “The vibe and the pulse in the building has been tangible.”
Saranac Lake High School students were dismissed from classes early on Wednesday and made their way straight to the gymnasium. In the end, the Nighthawks claimed a 38-37 victory.
“(Peru) played a heck of a good game,” Kissel said. “These experiences are about much more than just winning or losing. To see the community out here and the school support from the students, to see the high-fiving and back-slapping, it’s a special moment. Given the state of things in today’s world, it’s a really nice way to spend an afternoon.”
The basketball game was more about having fun while giving some students a chance to be involved in an activity they normally wouldn’t participate in as fellow classmates cheered them on.
“I thought overall it was a tremendous experience,” Kissel said. “Both teams came out and gave it their all. You could see the will to win was there for both teams. At the end of the day, we would love to be able to do this once a week.”
Wednesday’s contest came right down to the wire, with Saranac Lake’s Zach Bowen-Hadynski making a two-point shot with around 1 minute and 20 seconds left in the game to give his Red Storm team a 37-36 lead.
With a little under 30 seconds left, Peru scored a basket inside the paint to retake the lead, forcing Saranac Lake to take a timeout. The Nighthawks were able to come away with the ball in the final second to seal the win.
“We tried to get it into Tyler Hochwald,” Kissel said. “I think they were kind of keying in on him and saw that we might be trying to get him the ball. At the end of the day, you tip your cap to coach (Chris) Burdash and Peru.”
The contest was the fifth of the season for the Red Storm unified team, with Wednesday’s game being their final home match. Kissel said most of their contests have come down to the wire.
“We’ve had a couple of close games,” he said. “I don’t think there has been a game that we have played in that has been decided by more than six points.”
Peru took the lead early on Wednesday, scoring eight straight points to open the first quarter, before Saranac Lake’s Tyler Hochwald, who has been with the unified team since 2019, drained a three-pointer.
The Red Storm found a bit of a groove in the second quarter, thanks to some key shots from Shannon Thivierge, Cody McDuff-Taylor and Brayden Woodward.
While the crowd cheered for both squads, the Saranac Lake faithful erupted when some of their favorite players scored — including Hochwald and Thivierge, whom at one point were coined “Tyler Buckets” and “Shannon Buckets,” by the student body. Buckets is a word used for a successful basket.
“Shannon and Tyler are absolute champions,” Kissel said. “They are the first ones in the gym and last ones to leave every day. It’s that spirit and that heart of a champion that cannot be taught — that’s what we love about them.”
The two teams eventually deadlocked at halftime with the score at 16-16. Saranac Lake led 29-26 after the third quarter, but the Nighthawks were able to close the gap in the end.
“We’ve got a lot of good teams and a lot of good players,” Kissel said. “I think it speaks volumes of the unified basketball communities as a whole that all of these schools are having so many great players come out and trying.
“Coach Burdash of Peru was telling us that he had 19 kids that wanted to come out, which is a testament to good kids, wanting to do good things,” he added.