On May 17, more than 200 student-athletes gathered from nine of the 12 Hockomock League schools to celebrate inclusion, friendship, and the importance of giving the entire student body the opportunity to participate in athletics.
The inaugural Hockomock League Unified Track and Field Meet was a showcase of the growth of unified sports programs across the league and the emphasis that Hockomock schools have placed on opening sports up to the entire school population.
That Thursday started ominously with clouds and showers leftover from the day before, but as the afternoon crept closer the temperatures went up and the sun even peeked out a few times. Not that the weather really mattered because nothing was going to diminish the enthusiasm of the athletes and the partners participating in the meet or the coaches, classmates, administrators, friends, and family members that crowded around the track to show their support.
“For the athletes and the partners, it’s one thing to say you’re going to compete against another team but when you get to say this is a Hockomock thing it raises the bar and adds just that much more relevance to the event and the program,” said Franklin athletic director Tom Angelo, who started a unified sports program at Somerset-Berkeley and Plymouth North before he arrived at Franklin.
He continued, “That’s why I’m so passionate about unified sports…everything about it is good. There are kids out there that are competing, doing things that they’ve never done, and for so many of these kids it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve had people watch them and cheer for them.”
The teams rotated through a series of track and field events, including the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 4×100 relay, 4×400 relay, turbo javelin, long jump and the shot put. Teams stayed together for each of the events, rotating through each event as a team and cheering each other on, and, just like the league championship meet that took place three days later, teams formed base camps on the infield where they could rest between events and places for socializing with other competitors.
“Every team had their own little section, their home base,” said Franklin junior Sara Doherty, “and it was a lot of fun getting to meet people from other teams. It was awesome.” Doherty has been a partner on the unified track team for the past two seasons. She added, “My life has totally changed because of this one sport…to see it spreading, I can just feel all the joy in their lives.”
Erin Mitchell, the coach of the North Attleboro unified track team, which competed for the first time this spring, remarked, “Really what does it are the photos we take from the meet and, after when I look at them, you can really see how happy they are. It just makes you proud as a faculty member, as a teacher, and a coach.”
Sharon Gets Unified Track Started in the Hock
It took Eastern Mass. a little longer than the central portion of the state to recognize the importance of unified sports and formally implement them. The Hockomock League lacked a unified program until Sharon started the movement under then athletic director Bill Martin.
With his background from Central Mass., Martin saw the success of these programs and wanted to bring the same inclusion to the athletics at Sharon. He spoke with peers at schools like Algonquin and Westboro to get ideas for implementing a unified program.
He said that there was instant support from Sharon principal Jose Libano, and coaches David Roy and Tim Cimino signed on to help the team get up and running. There was also grant money available from the Mass. Special Olympics, which was working with schools through the MIAA to promote unified programs.
“From there it was an easy sell,” said Martin who is wrapping up his first season as the AD at Andover High and is already working to bring unified sports to his new school. “Being new, you kind of questioned how is this going to get started, how is this going to work in my school, but once it got started and you saw the response then you keep pushing to make it work.”
He added, “The best part is that you got to reach a part of the school community that you normally wouldn’t reach with athletics.”
There was no separation between athletes on the unified program, which started with eight or nine participants playing basketball and running track at Sharon and has grown into more than double that number in the past few years, and the rest of the athletic department. The athletes taking part in unified sports went to the annual athletics awards ceremony and took part in the traditional athletic events, adding to their inclusion in the Sharon student-athlete community.
“They would go up on stage and get their awards and everyone’s clapping for them,” Martin recalled. “It was all-inclusive. They were there as athletes. They were fully included in the evening.
“For [the athletes], they were just on the team and competing as part of a Sharon High team and the best part is they just thought this is what it was supposed to be…and it was. Everyone else learned a lot of lessons and got to enjoy where it comes from and how we arrived there but for the athletes it was just, ‘I have a track meet today.’”
That first season, Sharon hosted the South Sectional meet and Martin said there were maybe nine teams that took part. Now, there are nine teams in the Hockomock League alone that have unified track. The success of the program quickly spread to other schools. Taunton AD Mark Ottavianelli was on board from the start and a bowling event between Sharon and Taunton was arranged.
When Franklin hired Tom Angelo as its new AD, the Panthers added unified sports as well and now have one of the largest programs and have won back-to-back South Sectional meet team titles.
“I’ve had so many parents over the years come up to me with tears in their eyes saying this is the greatest thing for my kid to actually feel like he or she’s an athlete,” said Angelo, who sits on the MIAA’s Unified Sports Advisory Committee along with Milford AD Pete Boucher.
“Being part of a team and going on bus rides together and wearing uniforms, it’s all awesome. Too many times with athletic directors, part of our jobs, we’re dealing with problems and with unified sports there are no problems.”
More Hockomock Teams Come On Board
One of the schools that made its unified track debut this spring is Attleboro. The Bombardiers have a long history of supporting the Special Olympics, hosting the annual School Day Games each spring at Tozier-Cassidy Field (with the exception of a brief move to North Attleboro while the new track was under construction), and the unified sports program was an extension of the school’s desire to be inclusive. Track was the starting point for the unified sports program and 18 athletes jumped at the chance to take part in the first season.
“It’s been a great experience for the coaches and the athletes and it’s been by far the highlight of our spring season,” said athletic director Mark Houle. “I think there’s a mutual respect that is developed and it’s really bringing everyone together. It’s a little different than the Special Olympics because they get to represent their school.”
At one of the first meets of the season, Houle gave a high-five and congratulations to one of the athletes following a race. The student told Houle that now he wanted to join the track team and Houle quickly answered, “You are on the track team.” The smile that response elicited made everything worthwhile.
“They want to have some competition and they want to do their best and at the end of the day they want to know that they represented their school and their community and I think that’s pretty special,” Houle said.
The most difficult challenge for new programs is logistical. Running a track meet is complicated and coaches that are new to the sport or who have never been involved with unified sports before it has been important to have other Hockomock programs to lean on for advice.
“Since it was our first year, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Erin Mitchell, who is also a special education teacher at North Attleboro working with students ages 18-22 and an advisor for North’s Project Unite program. “Our first meet was against Milford, so it was nice that we were both newbies at it.”
She continued, “Our first meet was really cool. All the athletes cheered everyone on no matter what team they were on and what town they were from and we all kind of helped each other out. It was nice to have that camaraderie there.”
As an educator, Mitchell recognized the benefits of being part of unified track went far beyond the competition on the field. Unified sports develop life skills that will be important long after the athletes’ time in high school.
“It’s the little things that people take for granted,” she said, “like having the school uniform on and riding the team bus over to another town’s meet and being a part of a big team, walking through the hallways at school a little later rather than taking a bus right home.
“Seeing them be able to do that independently by the end of the season was nice and just knowing the routine of taking the bus and heading over to the track and that’s something these kids have never had the opportunity to do.”
Unified Sports Unite School Communities
The night before the Hockomock League meet, Angelo said that he received a text from girls lacrosse coach Kristin Igoe Guarino that she was moving practice in order to allow the lacrosse team to cheer on the athletes competing in the meet. That was just one example of the support that the unified sports programs have received from other sports this spring, and there were many others that day and in the weeks prior as social media was filled with posts supporting the unified teams throughout the season.
“I remember one of the basketball games this year, the hockey team came, the cheerleaders were there, the volleyball team, the football team,” said Sara Doherty, who has been involved in programs such as Best Buddies since sixth grade and who also works as a swim and soccer coach and is a basketball partner outside of school. “Sometimes I’ll take some of my friends from unified track and we’ll go watch FHS basketball games and we’ll see those teams playing and then when we’re at our track meet and we see those kids, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know them!’
“And it just makes them feel that much more proud of themselves and confident.”
Having other teams show up and be present at the unified sporting events, just as they would for other sports at the school, builds inclusion into the school community and places the unified athletes right where they belong – on the same level as the school’s other student-athletes.
“In the classroom and in the school building, just having more of a sense of belonging has been really good,” said Mitchell. “I’ve noticed that a lot more kids are engaged and excited to go into school and show off their jersey and talk about their meets.”
Doherty said, “All of the football teams and the basketball teams make it to state championships and stuff and it brings so much pride to our school that these kids, who didn’t have those same opportunities can do those same things, they’re like, ‘Wow, I’m important! People are proud of me! And they want to see what I can do for the town!’ I think that’s so important that they can represent their own school.”
By including partners in the meets, there is an additional bond that can be formed between the students who are not only training together but also competing for times and distances. The athletes can work with their partners to learn new events, and also show off their superior talents.
“There’s this one kid Jake who doesn’t want to go to track but then he runs the 400 and beats me every single time,” Doherty said with a laugh. “He thinks it’s the best thing ever. Especially with everyone there cheering them on, they think, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty cool, I can do this!’ It’s great seeing them gain this confidence in themselves.”
Unified Sports Continue to Grow
The Hockomock League Unified Track and Field Meet was not the apex of unified sports in the league, but rather a continuation of the momentum that has been developed in recent years. Many of the programs that started this spring with track are considering basketball in the fall and athletic departments have also discussed bowling or bocce as alternative sports that could be added in the future.
Houle said, “This is a step in the right direction for our unified sports programming and we’re going to be looking at options that will get some opportunities for the fall and the winter.”
As the spring season comes to a close, teams are already looking forward to getting back together again next year. The pasta parties before the final meet, the friendships that have been built with classmates and with athletes from other schools, demonstrating the ability to throw a javelin when no one else is capable; there are countless memories that have been shared through this experience and it is an experience that everyone involved wants to build on.
“I’ve made so many friendships with people who are athletes on the team, with partners on the team; I’ve grown relationships with all of the coaches and it’s just a great experience if you want to make a relationship that you’ve never really had the opportunity to before,” Doherty explained. “There are some kids who had never met who are now best, best friends because of track.”
Angelo said, “It’s such a proud moment for these kids. There’s something special about putting on a real jersey and competing for your school and we give these kids an opportunity to do that and it’s a magical experience.”
Martin has also started a unified sports program at Andover High this year and five or six other schools within the Merrimack Valley Conference have already followed suit. It has only been a few years since Martin started at Sharon and hosted a South meet with only nine teams and he is proud of the opportunities that unified sports are creating for student-athletes across the state.
“They’re wearing a Sharon uniform or a Franklin uniform or an Andover uniform,” he said, “and they’re out there and they’re considered an athlete and that’s all anyone can ask for is the chance to compete and to have fun.”