The best part might have been when Aaron DiClaudio and Haley Burkert walked along the fence, smiles as wide as the football field, and high-fived two dozen of their Delsea schoolmates after competing in the long jump.
Or when Jared Romero – the “King” of the school with the crown to prove it after reigning over the homecoming dance last fall — revved up the crowd by doing push-ups and flexing his right biceps before taking off down the long-jump runway.
Or when Robert Eldridge – who got a haircut just for the occasion – raised his arms in triumph after climbing the podium during the awards ceremony.
Truth is, everybody involved in Delsea’s first Unified Sports track and field meet deserved to take a bow after the Crusaders hosted Kingsway, Cinnaminson, and Clayton on a warm, windy Wednesday afternoon.
“This is so much fun,” said DiClaudio, a Delsea junior and one of the special-needs students who shone under the sports spotlight during the competition at John Oberg Sr. Stadium.
Unified Sports is one of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s best ideas in decades. The two-year-old initiative is designed to promote inclusion and break down social barriers through shared experiences in practice and competition for students with and without special needs.
These terrific programs, which operate under the auspices of the NJSIAA with financial and logistical support from Special Olympics, join students with disabilities with partners without disabilities to form teams to compete on the same field.
“It’s win-win,” said Al Stumpf, the NJSIAA associate director who oversees the Unified Sports programs.
The NJSIAA sanctions Unified Sports competition in bowling, basketball, and track and field. Stump said there are 25 schools that offer track and field programs, more than triple as many as in 2017.
“All you have to do is see the expression and excitement on the faces of both the Unified athletes and their partners when they finish a competition to know that this program is working and that the school is better for it,” Stumpf said.
Anyone in attendance Wednesday could vouch for the value of Unified Sports. It was one of those rare events in which everything and everybody was positive, from the athletes to the coaches to the officials — who high-fived every competitor and announced results such as an 8-foot, 6-inch long jump as if they were spreading news of a state record — to the spectators.
Even the weather cooperated, a rarity this soggy spring.
“Anything short of lightning, we were going,” Delsea athletic director Ken Schoudt said. “These kids were so excited to get out here.”
Delsea students came out in force. They clapped rhythmically during the long jump, cheered during races, and held up signs that read “Robert Rolls” and “King Kyle” and “You Can’t Catch Aaron,” which was 100 percent true in the 200 meters, as DiClaudio won the event in 35.2 seconds.
Kingsway brought a bus filled with the school’s varsity track-and-field athletes to support the Unified squad.
“We had to cut it off at 40 [students],” Kingsway track coach Christian Lynch said. “That’s all we could fit on the bus.”
Athletes participated in the shot put, long jump, 100 meters, 200, 400, and 4×100 relay. Almost all of the competition was among special-needs students, with partners providing assistance when needed and running two legs of the relays.
Everybody who participated earned a medal and posed for a group photo at the end. The top three finishers in each event took home a trophy as well.
“As a special-education teacher, I have a passion about students with disabilities and the importance of making them feel included in the school community,” Delsea coach Abbie Bilinski said.
Bilinski and Delsea track-and-field coach Ronn Flaim, who work together as teachers in the school’s special-education department, directed a team of around 15 athletes, including partners.
Cinnaminson’s squad of five special-needs students and eight partners — who sported the day’s top T-shirts, with the slogan “Know Your Limits. Now Break Them” on the back — was coached by special-education teachers Gail Maurer and Kelsey Rella.
“It’s everything to these kids to feel included,” Maurer said.
Clayton senior Liz Fooks won the 400 meters with a determined effort that drew loud cheers from folks in the stands and along the fence in front of the finish line.
Amanda Hall, the Clippers’ Unified coach as well as the girls’ track coach, said her special-needs athletes relished the opportunity to compete.
“These kids all want to run,” Hall said. “Sometimes my girls on the track team don’t want to run as much as these kids want to run.”
There are other opportunities for special-needs youngsters to get involved in activities and athletic programs. The key difference with this initiative is that they get to represent their school, same as their peers without disabilities.
That mean Burkert, a cheerful freshman and Delsea’s lone girl athlete, was wearing the same colors as members of the Crusaders’ powerful field hockey and softball teams.
That meant Delsea senior Noah Bekeshka, who ran on the winning relay team, and junior Michael Deveney, who took first in the 100 meters, were representing the same school as supportive guys in the crowd such as three-sport star Mason Maxwell and basketball standout Nate Cox, who sparked their teams to three South Jersey titles in the fall and winter.
And that meant Thursday morning’s announcements were highlighted by a report on the Unified team’s performance from the previous afternoon.
“That’s huge,” Delsea principal Paul Berardelli said of the opportunity for special-needs athletes to represent their school.
DiClaudio took home two trophies, winning the 200 and shot put. He was ready to compete after putting in extra work at home.
“He was so excited, he wanted to walk the dog extra to get in shape,” said Georgia DiClaudio, Aaron’s mother. “He kept saying he wanted to go around the block one more time.”
Aaron DiClaudio called competing in sports for Delsea the culmination of a “life-long dream.”
And he wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels after Wednesday’s event.
“I can’t wait until our next meet,” he said.