Geoff Smith | Top Moment of 2018: Introduction of Unified Sports gives varsity opportunities to all in Berkshire County

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When I look back on 2018, there are plenty of Western Mass. championship wins I could write about, or individual moments of brilliance that captured my imagination as I wrote a game story. But when I sat down to really think about the moments that resonated with me, I kept coming back to a pair of events on either end of the calendar.

They happened on April 26 at Wahconah Regional High School, and on Oct. 24 at Mount Greylock Regional High School. The first date was the Wahconah Unified track team's home debut, while on Oct. 24 the Mount Greylock and Wahconah Unified basketball teams faced off in Williamstown.

Never in my life have I walked out of events with as big of a smile as I did on those nights.

I'm not sure what it is that touched me most. But I do know that my faith in sports was renewed on both of those days. It's easy to lose sight of the essence of sports in the world we live in. The constant pressure put on young athletes to "specialize" in a sport (can we make it a 2019 resolution to stop asking kids to do this?) and forsake everything else to play it is overbearing, and too often we get caught up in the final result of a game, and not what happened during it. That is what makes Unified sports so special — yes, everyone would like to win, but everyone also wants to have fun.

"My favorite part is always coming in and seeing their smiling faces and knowing that they are happy to be here and excited and motivated to do this and have fun," Wahconah's Rachel Figiela said after the track meet.

Unified sports, according to the Special Olympics, "brings together Athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team." Teams feature athletes — those with intellectual disabilities — and partners.

Unified sports, then, help provide an opportunity for every student at a high school to compete in a varsity-level sport.

"The key part for us, is that every kid who walks through our doors has the opportunity to play a sport. All of them," said Wahconah AD Jared Shannon after the track meet.

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Seeing the crowds that gather to cheer on the athletes is also something to behold. In the basketball game, the stands at the Mountie Dome were as full as they are on a regular varsity night. With signs and cheering fans greeting athletes as they run up and down the court. Whether on the opposing team or not, every basket was met with raucous applause.

"It was really great, really awesome to see we had a lot of support from the community, and it just felt really good to have the kids cheering," Greylock coach Karen DuCharme said. "I know the athletes feel great."

These events stuck with me so much, that I put forth the lone candidate for our "Unsung Heroes" award at our first annual The Berkshire Eagle All-Stars Gala — the Wahconah Unified track team.

I think my favorite part of both events was how the school communities at large came together. In the spring, I remember seeing just about every varsity spring sport at Wahconah represented in the fan section. At Greylock, the student section featured signs that might be better than most you see at games. Loud cheers, plenty of encouragement, and the realization that winning and losing — while important — is not the only way to measure success, made these nights stick out more than all of the rest.

My hope for 2019 is that Unified sports continues growing in Berkshire County. The opportunities now opened to students at Wahconah and Greylock through Unified sports are amazing, and in time I hope that I can attend a track meet in the spring in which all 11 of our county schools are represented.

I'll make one guarantee if that happens: You won't find a bigger collective smile anywhere within our gorgeous county.

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As sports editor, I'm using my rank to add to this column. There are two other moments that won't make our top 10 list that I think should be noted. Both came in sectional quarterfinals, and both were monumental: The Wahconah girls basketball team ending Hoosac Valley's reign as Western Mass. champions, and the Hoosac Valley boys lacrosse team beating Mount Greylock not once, but twice during the season. While neither of the victorious teams went on to claim a sectional title, both teams did prove this sports editor wrong in his pregame predictions. The thing I'll remember most about the games, though, was the humility shown by both losing coaches. Seeing Hoosac coach Ron Wojcik and Greylock coach Jeff Stripp give credit where it was due, and not be sour in the face of defeat, gets to the heart of what sports is all about. Life is cyclical, and it's the same in sports — enjoy the ride when you can, and when it's time to get off, do so in an orderly and respectable fashion.

Geoff Smith can be reached at gsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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