Parents, coaches make 'pitch' for Area programs at Fall Festival

posted Sat, Nov 8, 2014 by Jon Buzby

Veteran coach Rhawn Short, right, is coaching an Area team for the first time and has seen firsthand the benefits of encouraging his students to join the Wilmington Wizards. (photo by Ruth Coughlan)

NEWARK -- Wilmington Wizards coach Rhawn Short stood on the sideline, arms folded, and calmly yelled toward his goalie: "Keep your head up! Pay attention."

Just a few seconds later the opposing forward fired a shot on goal. Nicholas Sanchez quickly bent over and scooped it up, smiling ear to ear.

Similar smiles were scene all over the University of Delaware athletic complex on Saturday at the annual Special Olympics Delaware Fall Festival. The event, sponsored by Chase, attracted more than 700 athletes and Unified partners competing in bocce, flag football, soccer and volleyball. An additional 45 children participated in the first-ever Young Athletes demonstration.

Nicholas' success story was just one of many witnessed by hundreds of spectators.

"That's the difference more practice time makes," Short explained proudly of his goalie's successful save.

What Short was referring to was the difference between practicing during the school day with his Richardson Park Roadrunners team as he has in past years, compared to being part of the Wilmington Area Wizards team this year.

"In school you no sooner get practice started and the bell rings and it's over," the veteran SODE coach explained. "These kids practice for two hours every weekend and love it. They can't get enough. They are always bugging me when I see them in school, making sure we are practicing on Saturday."

Short has coached soccer and basketball for the Roadrunners for more than a decade. But this fall he didn't have enough players to field a team so he instead decided to encourage the ones who were interested to sign up to play for the Wizards. Eight of his students are split among two Wizards teams, giving them additional opportunities to play with and against other children, and be coached by other adults. The parents have noticed the difference.

"Special Olympics is a wonderful organization that helps you gain skills you need, and not just on the soccer field," said Frank McMullen, whose son, Ryan, was competing in his first Fall Festival soccer tournament. "I give my props to Mr. Short and the other volunteer coaches. They do an amazing job."

Ryan, 10, scored several goals in his team's first two games, and with one left to play, answered immediately when asked his favorite part of the day.

"Scoring goals," he said, smiling.

Ryan's mother, Denise Burns, sees advantages beyond the soccer pitch.

"This is so worth it for him to be able to see that others have challenges too, and some that he might be able to help with," she said.

Middletown High School also had several students competing at Fall Festival for the first time. Among them was the Cavaliers' starting quarterback, junior Vince DelPercio, who competed as a Unified partner despite having played against Salesianum less than 12 hours before the start of his Special Olympics flag football game.

"These kids now see how much bigger Special Olympics is beyond the school events," Middletown High program director Matt Engelman said. "And hopefully they'll realize how big a part of their lives Special Olympics can be when they graduate from high school."

Like Engelman, Short plans to continue offering Special Olympics at Richardson Park for those students who don't have the support to join the Wilmington Area program. But at the same time, he'll push for those who can to join the Wizards and reap the rewards of having more sports to choose from, a variety of levels to play at, longer practice time, and additional opportunities to socialize and create friendships.

"These kids get to interact with and make friends with other players besides the same ones they see in school all the time, which they'll need to do in order to be successful in life," said Short, looking out over the field at the array of people involved in the event, which included 300 Chase employee volunteers. "It's just a great experience for the kids and a great one for me to get to work with other coaches. 

"Students in schools joining Area programs is a win-win for everyone."