And to think all that David Prokop first wanted to do was get a few Valparaiso High School Special Education students out for a Unified track and field team.
"We started small, hey, let's try track," he said. "I never would've dreamed this would happen, that this would be where it is. It's been a fun ride."
The latest in a whirlwind of success for the school's Unified Athletics program came Monday when ESPN announced Valparaiso as the top Unified Champion School in Indiana and one of 36 across the country that will be considered for national honors.
"I actually found out on Twitter (Monday)," Prokop said. "I clicked on the link and was watching the video. I read the article and I saw our name on there. A lot of people have been reaching out over the last 24 hours."
The process actually began last year with Valpo's selection as a state banner school.
To be eligible for national consideration, it had to meet 10 criteria: offering Unified Sports in at least two seasons; Unified Sports participation occurs regularly over the course of each sports season; an adult coach for each sports received Special Olympics Unified Sports training; Unified Sports is officially recognized by the school in a similar style as other athletics; a Unified Club or student group offers leadership opportunities/training for students with and without intellectual disabilities; the inclusive club/group meets at least once per month throughout the school year; the inclusive club/group has an adult liaison and is officially recognized by the school in a similar style as other clubs/activities; at least two whole-school engagement activities are implemented per school year; students with and without disabilities are involved with planning and leading the awareness activities; and the school is currently self-sustainable or has a plan in place to sustain the three components into the future.
"(Former Valpo teacher) Mike Zmija actually applied for the national banner when we met the criteria and Special Olympics Indiana," Prokop said.
Valpo was among eight schools in Indiana informed by Special Olympics that it had earned national banner status.
"A lot has happened lately," Prokop said. "We've got a display (at school) we've been putting things in, and it's filling up."
The reigning state track and field champions (since there was no spring 2020 season), Valpo won a state bocce ball tournament last weekend and is playing in the flag football regional this weekend after capturing a second title. Additionally, the program received a youth diversity award from the Urban League.
"With all that's going on in the world, we need something positive to focus on right now," Prokop said. "It's just a really cool program. And it's more than the sports. It's the social aspect. It's more than the special needs kids, it's the Gen. Ed. students, too. (Football and basketball player) Colton Jones got involved, and you just love to see the growth he's made."
Prokop said football coach Bill Marshall, basketball coach Barak Coolman and baseball coach Todd Evans all funnel athletes toward Unified when they are out of season to participate. In total, 175 students are involved.
"The administration has been great," Prokop said. "The support of the teachers, the community, they're all willing to help in some way. You don't always see that with everything."
A Special Ed. teacher at the high school, Prokop coaches the flag football and track teams. He is assisted by Sarah Albers and Katie Vettickal, who are also the Special Olympics Club sponsors at the high school.
"We're all Special Ed. teachers, we all work with different needs students, so this is a common place where we can all come together to do what's best for the students," Prokop said. "We plan to continue to keep growing, to make it bigger and better, to include more people."
Albers, who came to Valpo in the Unified program's second year, called the honor 'an awesome surprise.'
"It's something you're never really expecting, so it's like, oh, cool!" she said. "It's so much fun to share the news with the students, to tell them what they do is being recognized, to congratulate themselves and to tell everyone."
The intrinsic inclusiveness of Special Olympics and Unified Sports is especially important at time in where our country is deeply divided and people disparage anyone who is different than them.
"It really levels the playing field," Albers said. "Kids with a disability or an IEP (Individualized Educational Program), it doesn't really matter, when it matters so much in the classroom. It's OK to come play. The kids are their own cheerleaders. If somebody's having a bad day, someone's there to say, OK, you can do it. It makes it all better. To see that and hear that happen, it's just great. It's the perfect interaction. I wish everyone would have it."
Vettickal is in her first year with Unified and calls it 'one of the best experiences of my whole teaching career,' which spans the spectrum from the elementary to the collegiate level.
"Working with these kids has been awesome," she said, noting the importance of administrative, staff, family and community support to the program. "I work with the kids with IEPs and you don't see the camaraderie in the classroom that you see on the track, football field or bocce ball field. It's so much more apparent, it's truly amazing. It gives those kids the chance to be equal with the kids who make the (high school) sports teams, to get them an opportunity that they wouldn't otherwise get."
ESPN will announce the top five National Banner Unified Champion Schools at approximately 8 a.m. Monday. It can be viewed at www.espn.com/specialolympics.
"I just love that the kids get a chance to compete in a high school sport and represent there school and community while doing so," Valpo Director of Athletics Stacy Adams, an IHSAA District 1 board member, said. "It gives me chills to see the smiles, the excitement and camaraderie between the athletes and partners!"
To read the full article on the announcement, go to: https://www.espn.com/specialolympics/story/_/id/30022536/espn-recognizes-special-olympics-unified-champion-schools-efforts-include-students-disabilities. To see the video, go to: https://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=30025876
Valparaiso High School's Unified Athletics program has earned National Banner status and was recognized as the top program in Indiana and one of the top 36 programs in the country by ESPN . The network will announce a national top five Monday morning. (Photo provided)