‘They were rooting for our girls’

The Special Olympics athletes made an impression not only on the Eastern Connecticut student-athletes but on some of their parents, as well.

“They were sitting right in front of us, and we were enjoying interacting with them, and they were getting so much out of the game,” said Penny Weber, mom to sophomore outfielder Courtney.

She overheard that the Sox were playing the next day, so she suggested to her husband that they go watch them. “I mean, here they were rooting for our girls – people they didn’t even know,” she said.

“When we got there, a couple of the players walked up and shook our hands,” Weber said. “One of them told us all about what happened in their game and all of his hits – they were very excited.”

Sox coach Scott Robertson said, “Our players were really touched that the Webers had thought enough to come watch them play, and they invited them back.”

Salem, Va., is 2-for-2 in the new Division III partnership with Special Olympics. Just two months after DIII players and Special Olympics athletes scored memories at the Men’s Basketball Championship in Salem, the Softball Championship hit a grand slam with the locals there.

It took a serendipitous meeting between some Special Olympics softball players and the team from Eastern Connecticut State to load the bases, but once that occurred, a special relationship cleared the fence.

Division III championships administrators and local organizing committees have reached out to Special Olympics agencies in the past, but even more so since the DIII Student-Athlete Advisory Committee selected Special Olympics as its future community-engagement partner at the 2011 NCAA Convention.

In the case of the Softball Championship May 20-24 in Salem, where more NCAA championships have been held than in any other city, officials invited the Area 8 Special 8 Sox softball team (usually a co-ed team but all males this year) from the Roanoke/Salem area to take in some games.

As it happens, the Special Olympics contingent (including players and their coaches and parents) settled into a gap in the crowd right behind the dugout of the Eastern Connecticut State team that was taking on Christopher Newport on Friday in the first round.

Special 8 Sox coach Scott Robertson said the group naturally began rooting for the Warriors. The Eastern Connecticut State players not only acknowledged their newfound fans but also signed a softball as a token of their appreciation. Assistant coach Pete Maneggia tossed it to them.

“I always wanted to be one of those coaches who would flip the ball to the fans in the stands,” Maneggia said, “so there was a little of that going for me when I did it. But I didn’t realize the effect it would have.”

Coach Robertson didn’t, either. Though Eastern Connecticut State would go on to drop a one-run decision in 10 innings to the Captains, the impact the student-athletes had on the Special Olympics players lingered. “We left the game and all the guys kept saying that if ECSU was still playing, they wanted to come back,” Robertson said.

Timing was an issue, though. The Sox had their own state tournament to play the following two days, which conflicted with Eastern Connecticut State’s next scheduled contest. But the Sox players kept pestering Robertson about how the Warriors were doing and whether they could go back to Moyer Field. They wouldn’t be able to do so until Sunday night, and Eastern Connecticut State was playing an elimination game that afternoon, so the Warriors might not even be there by the time the Sox showed up.

Heartfelt thanks, in writing

To show his appreciation for the interaction at the Division III Softball Championship, Rick Hall, father of one of the Special Olympics athletes, wrote the following letter to the Eastern Connecticut team:

“I feel certain that you realize the impact you had on these young men. Your unselfishness, kindness and respect for others are qualities that are difficult to find in young people today. Your parents, coaches, athletics director and university should be proud of the way you ladies represented them at this tournament.

“As the father of a son with disabilities, you will never know how much you have touched me personally with your kindness. My son Matt has not stopped talking about the Eastern Connecticut softball team and how much he is looking forward to watching you ladies next year. He came home last night after we saw you and watched every YouTube video of ECSU softball that he could find.

“I can promise you that from the first pitch next season, he will follow every player, and monitor their stats and the team’s progress in your quest to return to the Division III tournament.

“Again, I cannot express enough my gratitude to you, your teammates, your parents, coaches and Eastern Connecticut State University for everything you have done this weekend. Sometimes the simplest things you do have the greatest impact.”

They came anyway. When Robertson found out that the Warriors had in fact been ousted from the tournament that day, he wasn’t expecting any familiar faces. But not long after they’d been there, one of the Sox players’ parents told Robertson that coach Maneggia wanted to see him.

“I walked around the corner and Pete said his team wanted to present my team with something,” Robertson said.

Indeed, Maneggia ponied up the individual trophy he had received from Eastern Connecticut State’s regional championship and had his players present it to the Sox.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Robertson said.

The Sox players talked to the Eastern Connecticut State student-athletes some more and exchanged email addresses so they could continue to correspond in the offseason. The ECSU team wasn’t slated to fly out until Monday afternoon, so Robertson asked Maneggia if he was interested in visiting the Special Olympics athletes at their campus on Monday morning. Maneggia brought seven student-athletes with him that day for about an hour during which both parties benefited.

“Some of our kids had never interacted before with people with disabilities and I thought they did a really good job,” said Maneggia, who has worked for the State of Connecticut’s department of developmental services for the past 31 years, so he is familiar with this kind of relationship.

“I didn’t know how tentative they would be. The toughest part is that physically, the Special Olympics athletes aren’t like people NCAA student-athletes are used to seeing. So that and the way they speak can sometimes be unsettling for people without those disabilities.

“But once you get past that superficial barrier, you quickly realize that they are people just like anyone else. Our kids did a good job once they started mingling.”

Robertson was just as pleased.

“The residents here loved it,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for [through the Special Olympics partnership with Division III] is a relationship like that with other teams. The ECSU girls just did this out of the goodness of their hearts, and that’s what we’re looking for. It’s a shame ECSU is so far away from Salem.”

Eastern Connecticut State head coach Diana Pepin wasn’t surprised with the positive turn of events. “Our team is very involved in making an impression and interacting with people in general, so they are accustomed to giving back,” she said.

Now they have some permanent fans in Virginia who want them to come back.