BENNINGTON >> The Bennington chapter of Special Olympics Vermont will represent the state once again in a national setting as the softball team heads to Roanoke, Virginia for the Special Olympics North America Softball Invitational.
Thirty-two teams representing the United States and Canada will be participating in the event, which runs from Thursday to Sunday. 13 of the teams are like the Bennington Rockets unified. The Unified team matches up the intellectually challenged athletes with partners. The partners are helpers and also become a big part of the camaraderie of the event.
"Togetherness is important to the people who put it on," said coach Jim White. "It's nice to win, but it's not the important thing. Softball is just the tool to get there."
Teams from Illinois, Maryland, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida, Virginia, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Connecticut will compete with Vermont in the Unified division.
"The partners are volunteers and it's a mixing thing, a social thing," White said. "Special Olympics is trying to get away from teams [that have all intellectually-challenged athletes] and make them Unified. It's good for both the athletes and the partners to be part of the mix."
The team is 13 players strong, which includes eight athletes and five partners.
Athletes include Ashley Finkelstein, Dyllan Fletcher, David Bentley, Eric McMorrow, Jeremiah Sylvester, Zack Wilson, Justin Wilson and Roxanne Willette. Partners are Taylor Kresconko, Mike White, Dick Frantz, Dave Ballou and Ken Baker.
White and Barbara Wood are the coaches.
They won the gold medal at the state tournament in Burlington a couple of months ago and about half have traveled for the national championship tournament in the past. Bennington played in the nationals in 2012 in Oklahoma.
They'll play at least two games on Friday and all games last 75 minutes. On the first two days, in the first 60 minutes, teams have a 5-run limit per inning and then an open inning after that. On Sunday, games are 75 minutes with no run limits. The modifications are to make sure the teams are as even as possible.
Events for the weekend include dinners on Thursday and Saturday nights and a pin exchange similar to what they do at the Little League World Series. Along with the events, a Roanoke-area high school softball team will be a designated cheering section for the Bennington team, who don't have a lot of family members traveling south.
"It's a fun thing, they mix with other teams as well and we're the odd duck," White said. "There's teams from big states and they all want to see Vermont. There's a dance on Saturday night and they want all the teams to wear outfits that match your state, like the Oklahoma team could be in Western wear. What are we going to be?"