There were nothing but winners at the first Unified Track and Field Meet between JTHS and Morristown held on Wednesday, May 24 at Jefferson's main football stadium. The unique event was the result of the inspiration and hard work of Brian Silipena, who teaches Physical Education and coaches football, bowling, and track and field at JTHS.
The idea first took shape last September when Coach Silipena was sitting in on an Athletic Directors' meeting where there was a discussion on the benefits of Unified Sports. In Unified Sports, teams are put together comprised of special education athletes and partners from general Education. The concept piqued Silpiena's interest and he explored it further, learning how it was new in New Jersey and there were even grants available for starting an event locally. With the blessing of JTHS Athletic Director John DiColo, Silipena went to a seminar in Central Jersey and came back with ideas on how several sports might have a strong possibility of succeeding in the Unified framework. Of the sports discussed, bowling, basketball, swimming, soccer and track and field, it was decided that a track meet would be best for an inaugural event.
At a meeting of Athletic Directors from the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), the concept of holding such an event was presented and discussed, with Jefferson being decided upon as the most likely host school because of JTHS' central location within the member schools. From there, Silipena enlisted the help of Nicole Wildermuth, who teaches Special Education at JTHS and who threw the shot and discus as a student-athlete for the Falcons. After more hard work, Silipena refined his idea further and presented it to a general meeting of the Special Education department, where it was universally and enthusiastically embraced.
Beginning in March, 10 coaches from the Special Education Department began working with the teams in four events: long jump, shot put (using a six-pound junior shot), 4x100 relay and 4x200 relay. Jefferson's Coach Wildermuth said the teams had been practicing for an hour every Tuesday leading up to the big day. At first everyone participated in all four events. After awhile, the athletes were asked if they had any preferences as to what events they'd like to participate in and for the most part everyone competed in all four events, with some not competing in the 4x200 relay because it was deemed too physically taxing some of them.
The Morristown High School Colonials brought a team composed in the same manner as Jefferson with special education athletes partnering with student athletes from general education. Like the Jefferson squad, Morristown's competitors had been practicing weekly since March and though their group was smaller in number, there was no shortage of intensity or joyous sense of accomplishment.
Unlike at most other inter-scholastic athletic events, there was no cheering directed at one team or the other. When a Morristown athlete began rhythmically clapping his hands as he prepared to make his way toward the long jump pit, everyone, regardless of the school they represented, joined in the cadence. Similarly, when an athlete completed an attempt, be it shot put or long jump, there were plenty of waiting hands to high five and fists to bump.
When the field events were completed and the audience moved to the bleachers for the running events, the atmosphere remained the same. Enthusiasm, encouragement, and appreciation for individual accomplishment reigned supreme. Every athlete was cheered like an Olympic champion from start to finish.
As in all competitions, there were final standings based on performance and medals were awarded as well as plaques for each school. Again, everyone cheered for each performer as they came forward to accept their awards and upon receiving their awards they appropriately held their trophy high aloft with bright proud smiles.
When Jefferson's team came forward as one to accept the plaque for finishing first in the NJAC Unified Track and Field Meet, everyone from both schools again filled the venue with thunderous applause, many turning it into a standing ovation. Likewise, Morristown's team, upon receipt of the second place plaque, showed no less pride nor were they greeted with any less appreciation and enthusiasm from the spectators. After the awards were presented, the athletes and their partners proudly showed their awards to family, friends, and all who came to offer well-deserved congratulations. It was truly a victory for all.
Following the meet, JTHS' principal Dr. Timothy Plotts was enthusiastic in his praise for the event and all who participated in any way in making it so successful. "It was an outstanding event," he declared adding "All our student athletes were wonderful. It was just a great event." When asked about the future of the event, Dr. Plotts was openly optimistic. "I know it'll grow. We'll advertise it at the NJAC Principal and AD meetings where there'll be representatives from 41 districts. We'll show them the videos and the photos, and they'll see what an amazing event this was."
Dr. Plotts' final comments summed up the event perfectly. "This day is all about abilities and celebrating those abilities."
NJAC Unified Track and Field Meet
Long Jump Relay
winner Jefferson (Roger Besemer and Aidan Sinisgalli)
Shot Put Relay
winner Jefferson ( Roger Besemer and Cole Benfatti)
winner Morristown (Will Silvertson, Chase Hampton, Jamie Horton, Colin McAllister)
winner Jefferson (Aidan Sinisgalli, Roger Besemer, Dean Gonella, Kevin Breen)
Special Education Athletes - Jefferson
General Education Partners - Jefferson
Javiera Bahamondes ( girls lacrosse)
Cole Benfatti (football, wrestling)
Nico Celentano (football, wrestling)
Kelsey Edwards (cheerleading)
Michael Fleming (football, basketball, baseball)
Isabel Freda (cheerleading)
Jocelyn Rock (basketball)
Aidan Sinisgalli (football, basketball)
Click or tap photos to enlarge.