Summer days means playing ball, especially for the Road Runners, Lincoln Counties unified special olympics softball team.
The Road Runners, a name associated with all the Lincoln County Special Olympics teams, are in their second season, and have a mixed group of special olympic athletes and partners, referred to as “unified” in the Special Olympic world.
“Unified takes Special Olympic athletes, and they get to partner with [other] athletes – kids without special needs. To play Special Olympics, they just need a developmental disability,” said Suzanne Clarke, head coach of the Road Runners.
Clarke started the team last year so her son and his friends could have a chance to keep playing ball together.
The team currently has 14 players, split evenly between athletes and partners.
Most of the players are closer in age, between 17-21, along with two older adults.
“They go out on the field, and most of the time you can’t tell a difference of who’s the athlete and who’s the partner,” Coach Clarke said, “They’re just buddies out there having a good time, working together. You know, someone hits a home run they all run out there to cheer them on and give them a high five.”
While the majority of the players have known each other their entire lives, the team continues to grow and give chances for individuals to improve their softball game, all while having a good time in a welcoming and safe environment.
Every Sunday evening, team members show up at the Knight of Columbus baseball field to practice softball.
The players start with a lap around the field, then play catch for a few minutes before hustling to different positions to practice hitting and fielding a softball. Throughout practice, shouts of encouragement, jokes and laughter can be heard all around the field.
“It really just opens your eyes to like some of the abilities that some of these kids have,” Jon Peine, one of the partners, said. “I came in last year and a few of them, they weren’t the best players, but after playing around a year they’ve really improved. And that’s one of the neat things you get to see. It’s a great time playing honestly for everyone.”
Practices started in April, and the team just competed and won gold medals in its first tournament of the season on June 8.
Their next tournament will be in Cape Girardeau on July 8th.
“It felt good winning the tournament. We had a lot of fun,” Cauy Clarke said, one of the Road Runner’s athletes. When asked what skills he enjoyed most or was the best at, Clarke simply responded with “everything.”
Clarke, like other members of the team, has played softball for a majority of his life in one league or another. He also shared that one thing he appreciated about the Road Runners was, “You can always hang with friends here.”
Samantha Schulte, the only girl on the team, used to play softball until she couldn’t make the high school team. She commented that she’s not always good at catching the ball, but that she can hit.
Since being with the Road Runners, one skill she’s really learned is to pay attention to where the ball is.
“Its fun, they make it fun,” Schulte said. “I have more friends than I made in high school, I had no friends in school. I have more friends and I don’t have people make fun of me.”
Micah McMenamy, 17, talked about how he’s friends with everyone on the team, and how as a partner he can help give tips when anyone has questions.
“I know a lot of them, they get bullied and not a lot of people like to play with them. And when they’re out here they just have a great time cause they have someone who will play with them and have a good time,” McMenamy said, on why he thinks unified teams are important.
Last season, the team made it to the state tournament and took home first place in their division.
Special Olympics teams compete in tournaments for most of their sports, with tournaments being divided into three different levels- area, regional, and state.
Teams have to win at regionals to make it to states, where there are 26 divisions, with each division having four teams in it.
For softball, team members are given an individual score based on their mastery of different skills – hitting, fielding, understanding the game – and then all the member’s scores are added up to give the whole team a single score that denotes their skill level. Then, when competing in tournaments, officials can ensure that teams are competing against others that are close to their skill level.
Besides tournaments, the Road Runners are always looking for teams willing to scrimmage with them.
Last season, the team played against the police and fire departments, a church youth group, and a group of men that one of the coach’s friends got together.
Lincoln County Special Olympics has another softball team that doesn’t compete in tournaments that practices on Monday nights, and they also have several other sports including golf, basketball, soccer, bowling and track and field.