Dribbling down the left side of the field, Michael Capone darted past defenders before coming to a stop and drilling a shot into the lower left-hand side of the net. For Capone, it was his first goal of an intramural soccer season; for everyone who was playing, it was a new beginning.
Capone’s goal kick-started Unified League, a joint venture between the College and Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) in which TCNJ students and Special Olympians compete on the same teams in co-ed, intramural soccer.
Two other Special Olympians, Will Donahue and Becky Scheick, joined Capone in that first game back on September 16. SONJ Unified Sports Manager Ryan Ceresani said at the time that he believed the experience for his athletes, as well as for TCNJ’s students, would help to remove barriers.
“Unified Sports, at its very core, is based on the idea of social inclusion, with an immediate goal of breaking down the barriers that exist between those with intellectual disabilities and their peers,” Ceresani said. “The social boundaries will disappear on their own due to the very nature of sports.”
SONJ began its first Unified League (in basketball) last year at Rowan University. Based on its success, SONJ reached out to other schools about adding leagues this past fall.
“(SONJ) was trying to enhance relationships between their [college-age] athletes [and] other student athletes,” explained Ed Dean, TCNJ’s assistant intramural and sports club coordinator. “Representatives pitched the soccer idea to our department, and we loved the concept and decided to go with it.”
The College has hosted the SONJ Summer Games on campus every June for more than 20 years, and Dean sees this new league as a chance to enhance the already strong partnership between the two entities. Ceresani had the same thought running through his mind when he reached out to the College.
“TCNJ’s recreation department is devoted to the goal of Unified Sports,” Ceresani said. “So, coming to [the College] with this opportunity seemed the natural next step in evolving our relationship.”
Capone, 22, is involved in numerous Unified Leagues. His father, Mike, says that Michael has “more medals than anyone I know.” Although the medals are nice, the elder Capone says that just watching his son play is the reward.
“It’s exciting, it’s like I’m out there playing with him,” Mike Capone said as he watched Michael score yet another goal. “Watching him out there playing and enjoying it is fun, it’s fun to watch. They’re trying to the best of their ability, and in a lot of cases, they make a good game out of it. It’s fun for them and it’s fun for us.”
The inaugural Unified League season ran from September to November, but Dean anticipates expanding the league in the future by propelling it into a “full-fledged club sport that will compete against other schools like Rowan and [Richard Stockton].”
“It is a new and exciting experience for everyone involved,” Dean said. “We are happy to be a part of it.”