Rowan Unified soccer team wins Special Olympics gold

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Many cheers – and a few proud tears – could be found at the Special Olympics USA Games at Mercer County Park as a team of Rowan Unified soccer players won its first-ever gold medal.

The team comprised of three Rowan students, one alumnus and six Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) athletes defeated Illinois 3-0 on June 20 to win the Special Olympics Unified Soccer gold for Team New Jersey.

Full of hard work, fun, friendship and inclusion, the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games took place June 14-21 with nearly 3,500 athletes competing in 16 Olympic-style team and individual sports. Hosted every four years – this year by New Jersey – the games included both traditional and unified events.

According to Special Olympics, Unified Sports is the partnership of “people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same playing field as teammates.” Rowan created a Unified Sports program in 2012 and has seen 212 Rowan students and 70 SONJ athletes participate. Rowan’s program is the first of its kind in New Jersey and the first officially in college club programs in the nation.

This is the first time that a Rowan Unified team has represented Team New Jersey.

Play Unified. Live Unified.

But head coach Gary Baker will be the first to tell you that it wasn’t just about the gold medal.

“It’s about the growth and friendships and what unified play actually means,” said first-time coach Baker, Rowan’s assistant director of Orientation & Student Leadership Programs and founder of the Rowan Unified Sports club.

“I got so many compliments this week from other people saying how supportive we are of each other and of other teams,” said Baker. “That means so much to me.”

Rowan 2013 Health & Physical Education alumnus Jack Boncales just couldn’t leave Rowan Unified Sports after graduation. Boncales returned to help coach the team.

“We play unified and live unified,” Boncales said “That was our goal from day one and we were able to do that in front of the entire nation. People recognized how much fun we were having and I think that transferred to a lot of other groups.”

For Rowan Health Promotion & Fitness Management senior Julie Kelly, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It’s more than a medal,” Kelly said. “We got so much more this week. Unified is a movement and we’re a part of it.”

In addition to winning a gold medal and bonding with her team and other athletes, Kelly also had the honor of lighting the Special Olympics torch at the Opening Ceremonies on Sunday, June 15.

Chasing gold

To reach the gold medal game, the Rowan Unified team defeated Wyoming 1-0, Arkansas 2-0 and Utah 1-0 in a dramatic game with two overtimes and a shootout. As he had been throughout the games, SONJ athlete and Depford-resident Billy Iocona, 17, was sensational in goal, blocking the final shot to secure Rowan Unified’s shootout victory, two goals to one.

Every member contributed to the team’s success whether on offense or defense or showing great sportsmanship. Over the four games, SONJ athletes Charles Schafer, Brooke Creighton and Cody Bruner; Rowan seniors Michelle Lima and Kelly; and 2013 Rowan accounting alumnus Solomon Feraidoon contributed goals.

Off the field, the team attended a Trenton Thunder baseball game and enjoyed a dinner cruise around Manhattan. The players also learned about fitness and health tips and made many friends from other states.

“We accomplished everything and more,” said Baker. “I felt accomplished before we even won the game. We had fun.”

Schafer, a 25-year-old resident of Haddonfield, summed up the week perfectly.

“We bonded so much more as a team,” Schafer said. “We’re really going to miss each other next week.”

Along with Kelly, Iocona, Schafer, Creighton, Bruner, Lima and Feraidoon, the 2014 Rowan Unified Soccer team included Rowan Unified partner Jon Pepper, a senior public relations major from Bridgeton, and SONJ athletes Khary Bullock Jr., 23, of Franklinville and Lauren Sweeney, 21, of West Deptford. In addition to Baker and Boncales, 2014 Rowan marketing alumnus Leigha Bannon also helped coach the team.

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