Although Unified Sports’ soccer season ends in the fall, Sunday’s high of 70 degrees made it feel like the season was just starting.

The warm weather brought hugs and smiles to the turf field as Unified Sports, a recreational sports club that brings Rowan students and Special Olympics athletes together, played their final regular matches of the season.

The winner from Rowan’s “Championship Day” will move on to compete for the Shriver Cup, a tournament devoted to both soccer and basketball in the College Unified Sports programs. This year, it was the white team who took home the championship. They will move on to the tournament.  Second place went to the gray team, and the gold team took third.

Unified Sports is a partnership between the Rowan Rec Center and Special Olympics of New Jersey. - Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo
Unified Sports is a partnership between the Rowan Rec Center and Special Olympics of New Jersey. – Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo

A partnership with Rowan and Special Olympics New Jersey, Unified Sports is an organization that promotes inclusion in sports for people with intellectual disabilities and other special needs. The club meets once a week to play soccer in the fall and basketball in the spring.

Special Olympics New Jersey is partnered with 11 other state colleges to bring the same club to their campuses as well.

Rowan’s Unified Sports advisor Gary Baker – who is also the assistant director of Leadership Rowan – helped start the club.

Five years ago, Rowan and Special Olympics New Jersey coordinated a 5K run called “Miles for Medals” at the Recreation Center, as a fundraiser for the latter organization. A staff member from Special Olympics came to the 5K and enjoyed it so much, they wanted to create a sports club with the Rowan Rec Center.

The gray and red teams face off in the final tournament of the season. - Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo
The gray and red teams face off in the final tournament of the season. – Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo

After a conference with Baker and Assistant Vice President Director of Campus Recreation Tina Pinocci, Unified Sports was launched with a basketball league in January 2012.

At first, Baker was concerned about student involvement, but the club soon became a success.

“Rowan students came out in force,” Baker said. “It’s been awesome, the level of involvement from day one until today. We have to turn people away because there’s just too many people to be on teams.”

The club presidents are Bethany DeBlock and Danielle Strathman. Instead of running around with clipboards, the girls compete on teams with the Special Olympics athletes.

DeBlock, who is currently a senior, joined the club her freshman year, and has been a

The goal of Unified Sports is to bring players together in friendship, while still keeping a competitive nature. - Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo
The goal of Unified Sports is to bring players together in friendship, while still keeping a competitive nature. – Staff Photo/Nicole Mingo

member since. She served as secretary her sophomore year.

“It’s been so rewarding,” DeBlock said. “People come in and kind of start off kind of shy… And just to see them by the end of the season, so happy and a better athlete; they come out of their shell. Being able to help them through that process is so rewarding for me.”

Esma Ozdemir, a junior health promotion and wellness management major, joined because of her previous work with people with disabilities.

“It’s just a great way for people to be involved together,” Ozdemir said. “It’s a fun way to interact and to get people moving and exercising.”

“Rowan is kind of where I got my start with the first time I was ever involved in Unified, so it’s amazing to see where it started five-and-a-half years ago to where it is now,” said Kalee Iacoangeli, who has been Unified Sports director for Special Olympics New Jersey for five years.

For more information about Unified Sports, contact adviser Gary Baker at bakerga@rowan.edu.

Unified Sports has more student interest than they originally imagined. - Photo provided by Gary Baker
Unified Sports has had more student interest than they originally imagined they would. – Photo provided by Gary Baker

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