Lynchburg, VA – Taking place earlier this month, the Special Olympics North America (SONA) Softball Championship saw nearly 200 athletes and Unified partners face off at Peaks View Park in Lynchburg, Va. for three days of fun and exciting competition. Falling under the umbrella of Special Olympics International – an Affiliated Member of USA Softball whose mission is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities – SONA worked hand-in-hand with members of USA Softball of Piedmont Virginia to host the annual event held in Lynchburg, Va. for the second-straight year.
“It’s so rewarding to be a part of an event that highlights the special needs population,” said Commissioner for USA Softball of Piedmont Virginia and Chair of the Special Programs Forum, Andy Dooley. “My favorite part is seeing so many of the same kids come back each year just as excited – if not more – than they were the year before. It’s just a pleasure to be a part of this tournament.”
An advocate for Special Olympics for a number of years, Commissioner Dooley has overseen the event all across the state of Virginia as the Technical Delegate, support staff and simply as a fan. Jim Ballengee, USA Softball Central Atlantic Region Umpire-In-Chief (UIC), also contributed to the event as the UIC, managing the various USA Softball-certified umpires working the behind the plate and in the field this year in Lynchburg, Va.
With top umpires in place and 14 teams gathering from across both the United States and Canada, athletes took part in one of two formatted tournaments – the traditional team event or the Unified event in which people with and without intellectual disabilities play as teammates. The traditional team tournament was split into three different groups with the FL Pasco Stars, ON Newmarket Challengers and the WI Bay Navigators each bringing home a gold medal. Five squads took the field in the Unified Division as the OK Fighting Peacocks edged out the Maryland Frederick Heat in a 12-9, come-from-behind victory to close out the weekend and claim the Unified title at the 2023 SONA Softball Championship.
A well-known name in the Special Olympics world, the Fighting Peacocks of Jay, Okla. added to its extensive list of accolades having earned three championship titles at the 2014, 2015 and 2019 SONA Softball Invitationals before tacking on its fourth win this year. Also making its mark on the highest stage of play, the Fighting Peacocks earned a gold medal at the 2018 USA Games in Seattle, Wash. along with its most recent gold medal finish at the 2022 USA Games in Orlando, Fla.
Although elated by the addition of another championship win, the meaning behind it meant more to this year’s Fighting Peacocks squad who was “playing for something larger” having lost a fellow teammate earlier this season. Jerimey Jackson, a passionate member of the Fighting Peacocks, passed away on June 16, 2023. Playing in his honor at this year’s SONA Softball Championship, each athlete on the team wore an arm sleeve in his memory and a No. 33 decal on the back of their helmets – displaying Jackson’s true love of the game and the “brotherhood” amongst the Fighting Peacocks while emphasizing the bigger picture surrounding Special Olympics itself: “the opportunity to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”
Proving to be an emotional and inspirational weekend, the 2023 SONA Softball Championship was a true success on all fronts: from the Special Olympics staff, to the USA Softball umpires and athletes – those playing both on the field and in our hearts.
About Special Olympics:
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics is a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. We foster acceptance of all people through the power of sport and programming in education, health, and leadership. With more than six million athletes and Unified Sports partners in over 190 countries and territories and more than one million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics delivers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and over 100,000 games and competitions every year. Engage with us on: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and our blog on Medium. Learn more at www.SpecialOlympics.org.