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Stockton's Unified Sports Club Celebrates 10th Year with Special Olympics of New Jersey

originally published: 02/12/2024

Stockton's Unified Sports Club Celebrates 10th Year with Special Olympics of New Jersey

The Stockton University Unified Sports team celebrates after winning basketball Unified Cup at Princeton University last year.

(GALLOWAY, NJ) -- Stockton University's Unified Sports club is celebrating its 10th anniversary 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.



 
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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 halftime of the men’s basketball game vs. Kean University.

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.”

Stockton's Unified Sports Club Celebrates 10th Year with Special Olympics of New Jersey

The Stockton University Unified Sports team after their basketball game last season at the Sports Center. This year's game will be played at halftime of the men’s basketball game on February 14.



 
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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.



 
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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.”

Stockton University is ranked among the top public universities in the nation. Our more than 9,000 students can choose to live and learn on the 1,600-acre wooded main campus in the Pinelands National Reserve in South Jersey and at our coastal residential campus just steps from the beach and Boardwalk in Atlantic City. The university offers more than 160 undergraduate and graduate programs.


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