Rowan is known for many things including sports, academics, the history and now one club stands out in particular after being recognized by ESPN for their accomplishments.
Rowan Unified Sports is a student organization that allows college students to team up with people of special needs by taking to the field in both soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter.
On Saturday morning, ESPN recognized Rowan as the “National Unified Champion School” for their excellence within the Unified Sports program. For Kaitlee Francisco, co-president of Unified Sports, the recognition was a surprise.
“It was a huge shock, first of all I honestly don’t play that many sports or watch sports a lot,” Francisco said, “I got the email and Joe is the other co-president, I called him and was like ‘is there a smaller ESPN?’”
For Rowan Unified, it was their time to shine. ESPN sent anchor and reporter Michele Steele, who headlined a list of speakers such as Rowan University President Ali Houshmand, New Jersey Senator Steve Sweeney, President of Special Olympics in New Jersey Heather Anderson and Rowan Unified founder Gary Baker.
The event kicked off, allowing Rowan Unified Sports to showcase exactly why they received the award. Two teams of ten partners and athletes took the court in the Esbjornson Gymnasium to play a short 10-minute basketball game. For those not involved in Unified Sports, partners are the students that help the athletes play and assist them both on and off the court. Jenni Panzarino, a senior accounting major, was taking part as a partner but for her it’s so much more.
“My brother has special needs and he is actually a part of the Special Olympics that are going to Seattle this year,” Panzarino said. “His accomplishments are so amazing and I’m so proud of him.”
For her, it was only the first of two historical parts she would be in that day, as later she brought home the NJAC title for Rowan field hockey, capping off an undefeated regular season. As for her Unified experience, it’s great exposure for the campus and the university as a whole.
“We’re associated with the Special Olympics, and we’re ranked pretty highly so it’s good to get some more exposure so people know on campus that we’re here for unified teamwork,” Panzarino said.
As for the athletes involved, it was a totally different experience, one of both support and unity.
“It’s important because it shows a lot of how all these athletes can come out and do what they want. It also shows how partner wise it can show their stuff,” said Peter Boole, a point guard for the Unified gold team. His teammate, Rowan Drunney, was a center for the gold team added in as well.
“I think it’s fun and I like it getting to play basketball with my friends,” Drunney said.
The game started off very one sided with the brown team taking an early lead. At about the five minute mark both teams made substitutes and two new lineups came out. After that, it was all about the gold team, led by Boole, who took the team to a 14-11 victory over the brown team.
After the game, two players from the gold team were given a post game interview led by Steele who treated it just like she would any professional game. She interviewed them asking how the game went and what took them to victory.
This wasn’t even the best part of the day for this program, the athletes and everyone involved. A round of speeches took place shortly before the co-presidents of Unified Sports took to different sides of a large black sheet covering a banner that was to unveil the award. Both of them pulled and down came the sheet, confetti hit the air and cheers rang throughout the gym.
The banner read, ‘National Unified Champion School – Rowan University.’
“It means a lot to be recognized, like we’re a smaller school,” Francisco said. “I think it’s also important because we’re very up and coming, and this puts us on the map, and markets us well to show that yes, this is a university, but it’s also a community of people that are put together to better the world.”
At the end of the event, all members involved in the club gathered for a group picture. Athletes made snow angels in the confetti on the ground, partners had smiles on their faces and some of the original founders even gathered for a picture to wrap up this historic day for both Rowan and Unified Sports.
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