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Friendly Competition

It’s the bottom of the 4th inning. The Vermont Bennington Catamounts have just cycled through their entire lineup and are ahead of the Missouri Jackson County Parks & Recreation Friends 15-6. Missouri’s Unified® softball team is discouraged. They’ve traveled to Elgin, Ill., for the first-ever National Invitational Tournament, and they’ve made it to the gold medal game in Unified Division 2. Cortez Jackson is shaking his head, but he’s determined not to leave without putting up a fight. “I don’t want silver,” he says.

No one likes to come in second or third, but there were no bruised egos, no bad attitudes and no jealous scowls across the field.

Missouri Unified Partner Chet Hollingshead steps up to the plate. It’s a base hit. Arthur Murphy comes up and gets another base hit. Jeremy Lackey hits a double, and Hollingshead scores. The home team crowd is on their feet cheering. Two more base hits and a ground-rule double, and the score is 15-9. Missouri’s signature cheer breaks out: “Show-me, show-me, show-me! MO! MO! MO!” Suddenly, Missouri is on fire, scoring a total of 13 runs that inning. The team leaves the dugout to high-five their fans before taking the outfield.

If you’ve been to a Special Olympics event, you know that we’re not known for big crowds or packed bleachers, especially at out-of-town venues. However, the stands were full for Missouri with some unexpected fans: Missouri’s other Unified team competing at the tournament, the Southeast Storm. The Storm had lost a game earlier that day in Unified Division 1, putting them at the bottom of their bracket with bronze medals. And back home, the Friends are some of Storm’s biggest rivals. The two teams have played each other at state competition for years, and competition has become even more intense the past two years, as a local radio station has started broadcasting the game. But despite the rivalry, the Storm players didn’t even consider resting at the hotel instead of coming to Friends’ game.

“They’re from our state, and we want to cheer them on to win,” says Lucas Blattel. “We’d want them to cheer for us, too. They’re good friends. I’m glad to have friends like them, and to come here and play with them.”

Just a few days earlier, the Friends hadn’t been sure they would have enough players to compete in the tournament. One of their Unified Partners had unexpected business travel across the country, which put the team below the required five partners. After frantic calls across the state, one of the Storm players found a replacement so the Friends could play. Then another Unified Partner had a death in his family. The Storm had one more partner than was required, so they sent one to the Friends. The team was not complete until they were already on the road to Illinois.

“I’ll play wherever I can play,” says Hollingshead, the traded player. “I just want both teams to compete.”

Friends coach Bea Webb says the two teams have become like family. They talk, they strategize, they help each other grow. She says cheering each other on is just part of the game.

“It’s always nice if you hear your name to cheer you on,” she says. “It boosts morale and helps you play a little harder. When you’re down and a family member helps you finish what you started, it’s an awesome feeling.”

The Friends held the Catamounts in the top of the 5th inning and scored another seven runs, bringing the final score to 26-15 and earning the Friends the gold medal. After the awards presentation, the Catamounts insisted on taking a group photo together.

Watching it all, I felt the familiar swell of pride in seeing Special Olympics athletes choose friendship over competitiveness. No one likes to come in second or third, but there were no bruised egos, no bad attitudes and no jealous scowls across the field. Our athletes are able to see the bigger picture: the chance to compete on a national level. The chance to play one more game this season. The chance to travel with some friends, and to make some new ones. And the chance to celebrate victory, even if it’s not your own.

Mandi Steward is the Public Relations Coordinator for SOMO

Southeast Storm (red) and JCPR-SPS Friends (purple) celebrate their medals at the Special Olympics National Invitational Tournament