reposted with permission from the Times Herald
By Cheryl Kehoe Rodgers, MediaNews Group
Mar 31, 2019
The last time I was in HersheyPark Arena (now the GIANT Center) was in 1985. I was a sports writer for The Times Herald, covering Wissahickon High’s girls’ basketball team against Altoona in the PIAA Class 4A championship game. As a journalist, I shouldn’t have cared which team claimed the title. But as a sports writer who followed the Trojans’ march to Hershey from the season’s opening tap in November, you can bet I cared. When Tricia Corace’s shot at the buzzer – which would have given Wissahickon a one-point victory – circled the rim for what seemed like 100 times and then rolled off and out of the rim – my heart sank.
I felt the loss then, and remember it now. All these years later.
And it was the first thing I thought of last week when my family walked into the GIANT Center. I pointed to press row, where I and other sports writers who followed Mary Scott’s Wissahickon team all season sat and tried very hard (and sometimes unsuccessfully) not to cheer.
This time around, though, I wasn’t going to be cheering for a team in a state playoff game. The team I was backing had already won – in a poetic sense.
Archbishop John Carroll High’s unified bocce team – with team members from Carroll and St. Katherine Day School (STKS), is the first private/parochial Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA) Unified Team in the state. Count that as a win.
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.
SOPA is hoping more private/parochial schools will be motivated to join the global movement of unified sports, and perhaps, after the ground-breaking success of the Patriots, schools will feel the inspiration.
Because, honestly, this season was inspirational from start to finish.
Unified sports programs in high schools are gaining in numbers – and in public schools that’s not surprising. Several local schools – Upper Merion, North Penn, Souderton, Harriton – have terrific unified sports programs that have been in existence now for several years. The logistics – because of educational mainstreaming and inclusion – are already in place for public schools to field unified sports teams.
Not so much in the private/parochial school setting. In the Philadelphia archdiocese two secondary schools are host to students with special needs – Archbishop Carroll houses the upper grades of STKS and Archbishop Ryan in the Northeast is home to St. Lucy Day School for children with visual impairments.
Carroll also boasts a very successful Best Buddies program – where typical students from Carroll are paired up with the kids from STKS. And that, no doubt, was what inspired Carroll to form the bocce unified sports team.
So, beginning a few months ago, Carroll teacher Ed Scanlon and STKS teachers Rosemary Faris and Bridge Mscisz held practices every Monday and Wednesday in the school’s hallways for their players: Matthew Rodgers, Rose “Muffy” Tulskie, Matt McKeon (STKS); and Carroll students Elizabeth Woodland; Mirabelle Gallagher; Michaela Kloc ; Madigan Gallagher; Fatima Browne.
And while wins were always the goal, the process was all about unity and, well, fun.
Trust me, as an athlete, one-time CYO coach, sports writer and overall sports fan, I always believed that the fun, the real fun, came from the wins. I heard all the philosophical rationalizations that the true victories were the lessons learned from losses. Heck, I even spouted some of those gems to heartbroken players. And sure, I believed all those things, but I also know that winning championships, covering championships and cheering a team on to a title was a lot more fun that trying to rationalize a tough loss.
But that was all before Matthew joined the bocce team at Carroll.
I caught the fever at the home opener at Carrol. The school, which had held a pep rally earlier in the week for the bocce team, rolled out all the stops. The band played; the PA announcer called the shots; the cheerleaders cheered and the student bodies of both schools filled the stands. It was the start of an incredible ride.
And an improbable finish.
Against all odds, Carroll, the only first-year team in the Montgomery-Bucks (counties) Unified Bocce regional championship meet – not only won its bracket (beating out Souderton B and North Penn) – the Patriots won the right to advance to the state tournament after a stunning upset over Souderton’s unbeaten A team.
And just like that, we were heading to Hershey.
But, we had to win our way to Thursday’s medal rounds first – in qualifying rounds played Wednesday evening at Northern High School – home of the Polar Bears. Seriously – the Polar Bears. There’s even a formerly live polar bear now stuffed and on display in the lobby of the school.
Within three minutes of the opening roll of our first game, I was pretty sure we’d be spectators the next day for the medal games. These teams knew what the heck they were doing – playing the angles, using backspins and knocking our well-placed balls out of contention. The lucky rolls we celebrated in the regional games were non-existent that night – and by the end of the second game…well it was time to take pride in all that Carroll had accomplished leading up to this moment.
So, the next day we cheered as Carroll captains Muffy Tulskie and Madigan Gallagher carried the torch for the opening ceremonies of the Unified Sports state tournament – beautifully representing the team and the school. The athletes and coaches received their ribbons and posed for pictures. There was a palpable joy in our little area of the arena – the smiles were broad and genuine and the pride was evident — these kids considered themselves winners – champions.
Even the likes of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos would find worth and value in Carroll’s celebration.
I didn’t get to add another Special Olympics medal to Matthew’s collection in the family room – but the one he did earn, from the regional meet, is still shining brightest.
And that ribbon he received in Hershey? Well, I was never a huge fan of participation ribbons, but this one? It’s quite beautiful for what it represents – a season when a team of terrific kids teamed up to capture lighting in a bottle.