By TARA JENNINGS, Staff Writer
April 17, 2019
On Saturday, April 13, 2019, North Brunswick Township High School hosted its first annual softball Autism Awareness Challenge at the Community Park fields in North Brunswick, hoping to share in the success of the baseball Challenge that has been hosted there for years. Ten teams were scheduled to play on Saturday (although rain and busing conflicts caused two of the teams to cancel), with each game meant to symbolize something more than simple competition; for once, everyone on the field seemed to be playing for a much bigger cause.
The NBTHS softball team (left) gathers with the Woodbridge High School softball team (right) to celebrate the first annual softball Autism Awareness Challenge on Saturday, April 13, 2019 in Community Park, North Brunswick. Shannon O’Neil, a sophomore at NBTHS who was asked to throw out the first pitch, can be seen in the center of the picture with a softball in her hand, signed by members of the Raider Softball Team to show their support for people with autism. (Photo Courtesy of Shaun Morrell)
Despite heavy rain Friday night, the softball Autism Awareness Challenge was underway early Saturday morning, with the first game kicking off at ten o’clock. Every team that participated in the Challenge received t-shirts to be worn during their game; these shirts displayed the names of the Challenge on the front and had “More Than Just a Game” written across the back. Teams were also encouraged to invite a student with autism to the game, where they would be able to throw out the first pitch and take pictures with the participating teams; Perth Amboy High School and North Brunswick were the only teams to take advantage of this opportunity, with sophomore Shannon O’Neil throwing out the first pitch for North Brunswick’s game against Woodbridge at two o’clock that afternoon.
Infielders on the NBTHS softball team gather before an inning begins on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Solid defense (led by junior pitcher Lauren Duffy, seen at the far right) and a solid performance at the bat (led by Cassadie Speed, a senior who is not pictured but who had a grand slam) helped the Raiders secure the win against Woodbridge in their first annual Autism Awareness Games. (Photo Courtesy of Lauren Knego)
In spite of the symbolic meaning of the Challenge, the competition between North Brunswick and Woodbridge was intense, with the game remaining scoreless until the fourth inning. While Woodbridge secured the first two runs with a homerun at the top of the inning, the Raider Softball Team battled back quickly, scoring seven runs in the bottom of that same inning. (Four of these runs came from a grand slam from senior Cassadie Speed.) North Brunswick only scored once more following their breakthrough inning, but strong defense and junior Lauren Duffy’s solid performance on the mound limited Woodbridge to only five runs overall, allowing the Raiders to secure the win.
This victory brought NBTHS’ Varsity Softball Team’s record up to four wins and two losses, but for the girls on the team, Saturday’s game was about more than just winning. “[The Challenge] was fun,” said Kayla Scher, a senior captain for the team. “It was nice that all the teams got jerseys and that everyone made posters.” (This refers to the posters made by each grade level in the NBTHS softball program, meant to show the team’s support for people with autism.) “It was all for a great cause.”
Posters made by the NBTHS softball team decorate the dugouts at Community Park during the first annual softball Autism Awareness Challenge on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Coach Rossi, the head coach for the softball program, asked each grade level to make a poster demonstrating the team’s support for people with autism; pictured here are the juniors’ (left) and the seniors’ (right). (Photo Courtesy of Shaun Morrell)
This sentiment was also echoed by the varsity team’s coach, Mary Rossi. “All the teams enjoyed coming out and playing for a cause,” she explained, admitting that she hopes the tournament will one day grow to be as big as the baseball team’s. “In this sport, we are teaching our girls not only the fundamentals of a game but also life lessons such as discipline, time management, responsibility, sportsmanship, and how to work with other people despite any challenges… The girls from each team were welcoming and supportive and truly made a lasting memory for all of these students [with autism]. I am proud of my girls for showing their support through outstanding posters, ribbons, and coming home with a win. Way to go Raiders!”
Moving forward, the NBTHS Raider Softball Team hopes to continue their success in the second half of their season. Their game against Colonia on Monday was rescheduled due to rain, but they will resume playing on Wednesday and Thursday this week, facing Sayreville and South Plainfield, respectively. While winning is important to the team, they share in their coach’s mentality, and after last week’s first softball Autism Awareness Challenge, everyone in the program knows that this truly is more than just a game.