BY MICHAELA KILGALLEN
For Your Clifton Park
CLIFTON PARK — “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Athletes competing in the Clifton Park Invitational Special Olympics softball tournament on Sunday not only chanted that motto before the first pitches were thrown, but they also proved what those words really meant.
The five teams, including the Schenectady Southpaws, Albany-Rensselear Rockets, Saratoga Thoroughbreds, Saratoga Mustangs and Capital District Express, gathered at their first tournament of the season eager to put their hard work to the test.
“Being part of a team is wonderful because of the teamwork and trust and communication that they build,” said Ryan Miller, the Capital District regional director for the Special Olympics. “This, for individuals with disabilities, is just amazing. You see sides of these athletes that you’ve never seen before. Whatever they learn here they really carry it over into life.”
The teams have been practicing for most of the summer, and they will now move on to the regional and state tournaments coming up in the next few months.
“It’s just like a big family. They all train very hard during the eight-week period before the events,” said Rachel Matthews, the program specialist for the Capital District and North Country regions. “And they’re excited to get some games in before the big regional and state events.”
The tournament follows the American Softball Association rule book with certified umpires. They modify as few rules as possible for the athletes.
“It’s pretty amazing, they’re really into the game,” Miller said. “If you see a dispute on the field you want to say ‘Come on’ but at the same token this is an authentic competition. I want to see the coaches getting upset and say ‘He was safe!’ — respectfully, of course.”
Players who are not ready to compete in the tournament have the option of participating in a skills competition. The athletes face off in running, hitting and fielding events.
Many of the skills athletes move up to the competition teams once they gain the necessary skills.
“We moved up a couple of players this year that have been working and struggling very hard,” said the head coach of both Saratoga teams, Rachel Heidorf. “We switched it around so were working on improving all of our skills. We bought some tees, which they were not happy but I had to remind them that none of us are Major League players.”
The Special Olympics holds events like this all over the country in various sports for people with intellectual disabilities.
The tournament in Clifton Park is considered a local event, the next big event is the regional tournament on Sept. 20 in Queensbury.
“I think to a lot of people this is their first event of the year, so they’re just excited to be on the field and get going,” Matthews said.
Athletes are grouped by geographic location and play for free thanks to the Special Olympics and the volunteers.
Tiffany Hutchings of the Schenectady Stallions described the team’s first big win of the day as “magnifico” after they defeated the Capital District Express for the first time.
“It feels awesome,” she said. “I’ve been playing since last year. I never played softball in my life, but I figured I’d give it a try.”
Hutchings’ coach, Bill VanEvera, has been working with the team for six years. He has watched the players drastically improve to be the winning team they were on Sunday.
“They try hard,” he said. “They like one another, which is rare, but they really do. This is huge for them. There are all varying degrees of disabilities and many of them reside in community residences so their recreational opportunities are sometimes few and far between.”