By Cheryl Kehoe Rodgers, MediaNews Group
It was a sports writer’s dream scenario. I know this to be true because, well, I was a sports writer for the first half of my career. And this story would have written itself. It’s the classic story of a first-year team taking on the veterans – titans of the tournament – and winning. The story of a group of kids coming together under unique circumstances and forming a bond that is strong enough to carry them through to the gold medal. And to a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) state playoff berth.
Hollywood churned out a ton of movies with the same plot, same lovable characters, same upset ending – the Cinderella story.
And who doesn’t love an underdog? I certainly do.
As said sports writer, as an athlete, coach, sister and wife and daughter and aunt of coaches, mom of athletes and now a basketball official – I’ve seen a lot of great games. A ton of upset wins. And more than a few championship moments.
None compared to what I witnessed earlier in the week at Souderton Area High School.
We were at Souderton to cheer on Archbishop Carroll High School’s Unified bocce team – a joint effort between Carroll students and students at St. Katherine Day School (STKS). According to Special Olympics: Unified Sports is an inclusive sports program (global) that combines an approximately equal number of Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) on teams for training and competition.
Carroll’s team is the first in the state for a parochial/private Unified team. What makes this situation possible and unique is that the upper grades of STKS are housed in the Carroll school building. This creates terrific opportunities for the two groups of students – while maintaining their own identities – to come together in a number of ways – Best Buddies program and events, school pep rallies and masses and now, Unified Sports.
The Unified Sports program is supported by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and that is where the road to the state playoffs in Hershey is paved.
For its inaugural season, Carroll had its expected ups and downs. Fans and parents understood the learning curve for this young team and we were happy to cheer on the Patriots no matter what, celebrating each minor step forward as a terrific team accomplishment.
And that’s what makes this week’s victory all that sweeter.
Carroll was competing in the Montgomery-Bucks (counties) Unified Bocce regional Championship Meet at Souderton high school. Last year Souderton was recognized nationally for its terrific Unified Sports programs – so it was understood the host team (which fielded two squads) would be a strong contender. In fact, the program for the tournament noted that one of the Souderton teams had just one loss, and the other team was undefeated.
Also competing in the tournament were PIAA titans North Penn, C.B. East, Harriton and Upper Merion.
Carroll’s opening game was against Souderton’s Baller Squad – which had a 4-1 record. The Patriots notched their first upset of the day. The second game pitted the Pats against top contender North Penn Navy – which had a 4-1 record. In that stunning upset, North Penn twice called for measurements, and to my mind (granted, I’m a rookie when it comes to the nuances of bocce) that indicated Carroll had the Knights on the ropes. And that they did.
That win over North Penn gave Carroll the gold medal in the “black bracket” and the ticket to play Souderton’s Chillin’ Like a Villain squad, coming in unbeaten as the “red bracket” winner, for the PIAA state playoff berth.
In classic “sports movie” fashion, the game came down to the last ball, the last few seconds. Carroll had secured a 4-1 lead, but Souderton bounced back and was able to tie the score with less than five minutes remaining. A few well-placed balls, more than one lucky roll, and Carroll was celebrating a stunning upset win.
During the games I made the comment, jokingly, that my family room was dripping in Special Olympic medals. And that’s not an exaggeration. But it doesn’t reflect Matthew’s athletic ability. It reflects his love of the sports he plays. Matthew’s been competing in Special Olympics since he was 7 years old – that’s 10 years of collecting hardware. While the experiences he’s had have been invaluable to him, I really believe his participation has given me greater rewards.
There’s something to be said for a kid getting out on a court or field with athletes comparable to himself and competing. I know there are a ton of videos out there of kids with special needs getting in the varsity football game or basketball game, with the opponents giving the athlete a wide berth to the end zone or basket so that the athlete can score. Most people see beauty in those situations, as do I. The beauty lies in the generosity of the varsity players, not in the accomplishment of the kid with special needs. As a mom of a kid with special needs, a mom who grew up in sports and wrote about sports as a livelihood, well, I’d much rather see my son compete against peers who play tough defense on him, and he is still able to find a way to score. To me that’s where the true accomplishment is. And that is what Special Olympics, and now Unified Sports, offers athletes like Matthew. The playing fields are level, and that wide berth doesn’t exist, unless its created and earned.
It gives me, his mother and biggest fan, the chance to see my son exceed all expectations. There’s no greater joy I feel than when Matthew overcomes fears, challenges, obstacles, and his own limitations to improve, to succeed and to experience that satisfaction that comes from simply achieving.
So, this gold medal, hanging with all the other medals and ribbons in my family room – will shine a bit brighter. It will stand out because of what it stands for – the first-ever Catholic Unified Sports team in the state of Pennsylvania – a David – standing up against a host of Goliaths – stood strong together to make history.
Now, on to Hershey for the chocolate icing on the cake.
Cheryl Kehoe Rodgers is a content editor at The Times Herald. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.