Hockomock League Unified In Promoting Inclusion

Unified Track
North Attleboro athletes and partners enjoy their time at the first ever Hockomock League Unified Track meet, held at Franklin High. North was one of several schools that added unified track this spring, bringing the total to nine Hockomock schools. (Peter Raider/HockomockSports.com)

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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.

Click here for a photo gallery from the inaugural Hockomock League Unified Track and Field Meet.

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.”

Athletes from Attleboro compete in the inaugural Hockomock League Unified Track and Field meet. (Peter Raider/HockomockSports.com)

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.”

Click here for a photo gallery from the inaugural Hockomock League Unified Track and Field Meet.

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 Track
Partners and athletes enjoy a break on the infield in between events. (Peter Raider/HockomockSports.com)

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.”

Click here for a photo gallery from the inaugural Hockomock League Unified Track and Field Meet.

Sharon Girls Tennis Soars To First State Championship

Sharon girls tennis
The Sharon boys and girls tennis teams pose for a photo after their state final matches. (Bill Martin/Twitter)
SHREWSBURY, Mass. — Sharon girls’ tennis coach Diane Micheroni had a simple message to her two doubles teams as the Eagles soared through their journey to St. John Shrewsbury’s tennis complex Wednesday afternoon.

“On the bus I looked at my doubles and said, ‘We’re going to have to count on you today,'” Micheroni said. “‘You’re going to have to pull through and play smart tennis.'”

With the Eagles holding onto a narrow 2-1 lead and Longmeadow’s No. 2 singles making a late push, Sharon needed to count on its second doubles pair of junior Rithika Neti and freshman Sophia Fein to cap off its perfect season.

After splitting the first two sets 6-3 and 3-6, Neti and Fein saved their best tennis of the evening for the most critical moment of the Eagles’ season. The duo was in sync on almost every serve and returned everything the Lancers hit their way. After returning a serve, Neti returned a volley that hit off Longmeadow rocket and out to secure a 26-0 record and a Division 1 state championship – the first in program history.

“I just don’t even know, I don’t know what to say,” Neti said as she was holding back tears of joy after the match win. “It was just, finally. I mean honestly this was such a team effort and we put in so many hours and so much work all season. To win the state championship for the team, it’s really awesome.”

“There was a lot of pressure on them and they stood to it and they took the victory,” Micheroni said of the No. 2 doubles partners. “They weren’t going to let them take it away from them. I’m proud of them.”

The Eagles jumped out to an early lead after junior Lulu Yuan swept No. 3 singles 6-1, 6-0. Yaun finished the season undefeated at third singles in match play. Lancer No. 1 single Iris Gallo was very impressive, defeating Sharon sophomore Nupur Shukla 6-1, 6-1 to tie the match at one.

Echoing Micheroni’s earlier statements, Sharon’s No. 1 doubles pair of Junior Katie Merport and Emily Wen took care of business in straight sets 6-2, 6-4.

With the No. 2 singles match taking an intermission before the tie-breaking set after Lancer Hallie Gallo took the first set 6-4 and Sharon freshman Emily Zhang winning the second 6-4, almost everyone in attendance shifted their focus to the second doubles pair.

Despite Hallie Gallo eventually winning the tie-breaker 6-4, for Longmeadow the Eagles had already been crowned champions
“My doubles teams came through in this match,” Micheroni said. “The singles get a lot of attention, but I always say titles and championships are won by your doubles and they came through. They did come through today. I’m very proud of them – the whole team.”

Sharon Athletic Director Bill Martin praised Micheroni’s leadership and how Sharon hopes to remain a successful program for years to come.

“They’re bringing a state championship home with a team that’s basically all going to return next year — we have one senior on the team,” Martin said. “We have a head coach and two assistants that have been class acts and have taught our kids unbelievable lessons throughout the year. I mean, they’re 26-0. What more can you ask for?”

As sweet of a moment Wednesday’s win was for the entire Eagles team and community, it even meant a little bit extra to Sophia Fein.

Following the No. 2 doubles win and amidst her teammate’s hugs and screams of jubilation at the center of Court 5, Sophia turned and found one of her biggest supporters, mentors and role models standing there to greet her.

Her brother, Griffin, a two-time Hockomock League MVP, awaited with open arms as his younger sister walked off the court a state champion after he had rushed over from across town following the boys’ championship match earlier that afternoon.

“He’s the tennis star of the family, but he’s brought me up in it,” Sophia said. “Every time before I have a match he texts me good luck. He’s like, ‘hit hard, you know how to do this.’ For him to be here, to see the last couple of points, especially since he’s normally playing when I’m playing, he hasn’t really gotten a chance to watch me. That was pretty special.”

Said Martin: “That’s what sports are supposed to be about — relationships. You don’t often see the relationships between brother and sister in high school sports. Griffin is one of the classiest kids I’ve ever met. Great family. I’m just getting to know Sophia and it’s a credit to what they are as a family because they support each other. It makes you proud to be an Eagle.”

With the boys’ side having a long, decorated history and the entire team in attendance to support their counterparts, this was the first state championship appearance for the girls team in school history. The Eagles’ 26-0 mark also is the best season in the program’s history.

“It’s just something that you always dream of that you could attain, but they did it and they pulled it off,” Micheroni said. “That’s just such a hard thing to do.”

“This is an awesome team and an awesome lineup,” Neti said. “I’m so proud of everyone on this team. Every single one. It got us through the season, won matches for us.”

Wayland’s singles too much to handle

Earlier in the afternoon, the boys’ team sought redemption from their 2015 state championship defeat against Wayland High School after the Warriors narrowly took the title 3-2 two years ago.

Wayland once again got the better of the Eagles, sweeping singles play en route to a 4-1 victory in the Eastern Massachusetts boys’ Division 2 Final at Shrewsbury High School.

“I knew how good their singles were,” Griffin Fein said. “We were confident in our doubles, always — our doubles are so good. This is what we expected. We expected the state championship to be this tough and that’s what we got. We’re happy with whatever the outcome is. We played out best.”

With the Eagles already behind 2-0 after victories in singles No. 1 and 3, junior Fred Bondar battled back and forth with the Warriors’ Jaylen Wang in the second singles match. Wang took the first set 7-6 (7-4) and ended up taking the second 6-3 with Bondar battling calf cramps in a frame that was much closer than the final score indicated.

“It’s always tough going up against Jaylen [Wong]. He’s a great player,” Bondar said, the two had previously faced-off in the 2015 contest. “There are very few things that I would go back and change if I could. I gave it my all and frankly I thought I played pretty well.”

“I think he played better than I did. I wasn’t cramping in the first set and he took that.” Bondar added. “I just think when I was coming back in the second set I gave it my all, but my right calf was sort of giving out. I don’t think that made or break anything. I still gave it my all and gave my best.”

Griffin Fein dropped No. 1 singles against Georgetown-bound Charlie Sharton 6-0, 6-1, while Wayland’s Will Barton also gave the Warriors an early lead defeating Andre Olivei 6-2, 6-1 putting Sharon in an early hole.

Much like Wang and Bondar, Fein and Sharton also faced each other in the 2015 final with Sharton winning in straight sets.

“I knew it was going to be the same kind of situation going into the match and I wanted to give him a battle. I had some good points against him today,” Griffin Fein said. “I had to play perfect if I wanted to beat him. … he’s just a hell of a player.”

Alex Romantz and Alberto Olivei took home the lone Sharon victory of the day in No. 1 doubles. The pair dropped the first set 6-7 (6-8) but would rally back to defeat Wayland’s Gage Fuller and Will Gardner in set two, 6-3, and three, 6-1. Romantz and Olivei finished unbeaten as a team in 2017.

In No. 2 doubles, the Eagles’ Danujan Thirumavalavan and Max Brody took the first set 6-3, before dropping the second and third sets, both by a score of 7-5.

“We knew [the Warriors] were tough,” Sharon coach Joan Cutter said. “We’ve come so far, we had a great season with great guys and they’ve worked really hard. They were 23-0.”

Despite the Eagles coming up just short of the championship, Cutter had nothing but good things to say about their season as a whole.

“They’re just the best people,” Cutter added. “I love it. I love their effort and their dedication. It’s just been a wonderful story — the whole thing.”