Growing unified sports movement taking off in York County

Unified Sports teams up with Dallastown Area Intermediate School during a pep rally at the school in Springfield Township, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

When York County School of Technology's unified track and field team won second place at regionals in 2018, its athletes dumped the cooler over coach Alex DiMarzio's head.

"It was just so sweet, and they all laughed, and they were all holding hands," he said, joking that normally he would have been mad, but the students really do mean a lot to him.

DiMarzio's squad was one of York County's first unified sports teams  — in which high school students with intellectual disabilities compete alongside their general education peers in a special league. 

This spring, York Tech's team will be competing against four other unified track teams in York County. And there are at least seven unified track and field teams in Lancaster County — part of a movement that’s taken off in the state in the last five years. 

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York Tech, Red Lion Area and Northern York County school districts were the first locally to come on board in the 2017-18 school year, followed by Central York and Dallastown Area districts the following year. West York Area's squad is set to begin its inaugural season this spring.

Northern York only competes against Harrisburg-area teams in winter bocce ball, a sport coach Lauren Berry described as "definitely a sport that everyone can participate in, even with physical disabilities."

But Central and Dallastown are adding bocce this winter, and York Tech plans to add it next year.

The immediate goal is to have a high school competing in all 12 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association districts, which Special Olympics Pennsylvania will accomplish after this year, allowing each county to compete separately, said Michelle Boone, senior sports director for the organization.

Unified teams first emerged internationally in the mid-1980s, she said, and were piloted in Philadelphia 12 years ago as part of a national outreach. But it wasn't until five years ago that there was a larger statewide effort to bring the teams to Pennsylvania's high schools.

The goal is to have a 50-50 split between students with and without intellectual disabilities, said Boone.

Unified teams are treated like varsity sports — with students even receiving varsity letters at the end of the year and statewide competitions scheduled to align with PIAA competitions in the winter and spring, she added.

And that's a luxury special needs students don't often get, as it evens the playing field and gives them a sense of belonging with the rest of the student body.

Students are more likely to interact with their special needs peers because they either know them on the team or see them roaming the halls in their signature warm-up jackets, said Central York transition coordinator Shelley Warfield.

“They wear those jackets with pride all season," she said.

Dallastown's Kyiana Baker, right, is guided by Langley Brockway during a relay competition as Unified Sports teams up with Dallastown Area Intermediate School during a pep rally at the school in Springfield Township, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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Teams vary in size, with a cap of about 30, and there was a challenge, at first, to get students to sign up, Warfield said.

"At first they wanted to do more things for the students with disabilities," she said, before they realized they would all be supporting each other equally as a team.

In track, unified teams compete a minimum of two times per regular season, as well as in a regional competition with the opportunity to advance to state finals. Players choose between three running events and three field events — shot put, mini javelin and long jump.

Unified Competition Schools have three elements — the sport itself, a club co-led by students with and without intellectual disabilities and a school-wide inclusion campaign — and coaches have also found that those attitudes follow students to the field.

"In theory Dallastown is our hated rival," said Red Lion Athletic Director Arnie Fritzius, observing the support both teams had for each other on the field, with members and coaches cheering for the last student to cross the finish line no matter who it was.

Unified Sports teams up with Dallastown Area Intermediate School during a pep rally at the school in Springfield Township, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Fritzius said he and the other team's coach "kind of looked at what was going on and said, 'this is what sports and athletics should really be,'" he said.

Some students even developed an interest in special education after joining teams.

For example, Lucas Reed, a senior returning to the Central York team this year, is now considering working in a specialized dentistry practice for patients with special needs after college. And Dallastown grad Raymond Crispus is changing his major to include special education.

Special Olympics Pennsylvania covers uniforms, equipment, coach stipends and inclusion campaign materials for three years, while schools cover transportation costs and raise funds to become self-sustainable and help support other schools starting teams.

"I would encourage any school district that is thinking about this," DiMarzio said.