Home » Unified Sports Club Celebrates 10th Year with Special Olympics

Unified Sports Club Celebrates 10th Year with Special Olympics

Galloway, N.J. — Stockton University’s Unified Sports club is celebrating its 10th anniversary this
year of being affiliated with the Special Olympics of New Jersey — and the basketball
team has a title to defend.

The student-run club is one of 10 at a New Jersey college or university that compete
in soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter as part of the Unified Cup, which
the Ospreys won in basketball last year for the first time.

“One of the greatest things we do here in athletics is unified sports, and all the
credit goes to our Stockton students,” said Associate Director of Athletics and Recreation
Jeff Haines, who oversees the club. “The time, the dedication, the passion and the
patience they have for our Special Olympic unified athletes is incredible.”

Special Olympics is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports
training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins people with and without
intellectual disabilities on the same team.

Haines said that while the club has been affiliated with Special Olympics New Jersey
(SONJ) for 10 years, it was established at the school at least 15 years ago. Currently
the program features about 20 athletes for soccer and about 40 for basketball, according
to SONJ, while about 10 to 15 Stockton students participate in the program as aides
and coaches for the athletes.

The athletes, who range in age from their 20s to their 40s, meet with the students
weekly on campus for practice. The club also plays once a year in G. Larry James Stadium
at halftime of a Stockton intercollegiate soccer game and once a year in the Sports
Center at halftime of a basketball game. This year’s basketball game on campus will
be Wednesday, Feb. 14, during the men’s basketball game vs. Kean University.

Molly Schick, the president of Stockton’s Unified Sports Club, poses with one of the
athletes during the team’s annual soccer game on campus.

Jess Stevenson oversees the college unified sports program for SONJ. She said Stockton
is one of the strongest participants in the program, often having one of the largest
unified basketball teams in the state. She said the club is a unique opportunity for
the athletes to experience a university campus setting.

“They actually get to walk on to a campus, potentially for the first time ever, which
is really neat,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to make friends with these college
students and make friends with people who they might not have a chance to meet before
stepping on Stockton’s campus. They can do more and something they might not had done
before.”

Not to mention the opportunity to play before a big crowd in a big arena.

“The athletes that come here for soccer and basketball, it’s the highlight of their
week, their parents tell me. The 12 minutes they get out on the court is special to
them. They look forward to it all year,” Haines said. “What’s great too is that the
fans and the students really get into it. They root them on to score a basket.

“And our Stockton students are the key to running it. I can’t take any credit for
it whatsoever.”

Molly Schick, a senior from Marlton, is the president of the club and has been involved
since she walked on campus in 2019 after her brother’s girlfriend urged her to join
the team.

“My roommate and I went, tried it out and we loved it from the first practice,” said
the Nursing major. “I put myself out there and just ended up loving it. I found the
one thing that I loved, and I just stuck with it through four years.”

Ironically, Schick said she’s only “played a little bit of sports” throughout her
life, she doesn’t consider herself a very competitive person and before joining the
club she had very little experience working with people with intellectual disabilities.

“But I just love being part of the team, supporting other people and lifting other
people up,” she said.

And the relationships she has developed with the athletes have gone far beyond just
being their coach on the court. Schick said she texts some of them almost daily just
to see how they are doing, and they will often reach out to her as well. Recently
one athlete had an incident on a bus ride home from practice and was stuck at the
Atlantic City Bus Terminal. He called Schick and she and Matthew Long, the club’s
assistant coach, picked him up and drove him home.

“I know that we don’t have to do that, but you build such a strong bond with these
people,” Schick said.

For Long, joining the club about a year and a half ago gave him an opportunity to
still be involved in sports, which he has played his entire life, and also grow as
a person and make a difference.

“What I have learned from the whole program is to treat everyone the way you want
to be treated,” said the senior Business Administration major from Toms River. “No
one is better or worse than anyone and this club has really taught me that.”

Long said his background in sports and team dynamics has helped make the practices
fun while also having some structure and teaching the athletes the basics of the sports.
He’s especially looking forward to defending Stockton’s Unified Cup title on April
7 at Princeton University’s Jadwin Gymnasium. The Ospreys will face teams from Montclair
State, Rowan and Rutgers, among others.

“The athletes have given me so many fun memories, and I’m so fortunate and grateful
that I was able to be a part of something so much bigger than myself,” he said.

Schick couldn’t agree more. Not only has she made friends that she will probably continue
to talk to after graduation, but she admits the Unified Sports club has left a lasting
impact on her life.

“Honestly, it’s made me a better person. And they are going to make me a better nurse,”
she said. “It’s taught me so much about teamwork, communication, collaboration. I’m
so glad I said yes to join my freshman year.”

— Story by Mark Melhorn