Jun. 18—PALMYRA TWP. — Their smiles stretched from ear to ear.
A day full of activities for the student body at Wallenpaupack High School came to a halt. Athletes, wearing their black championship T-shirts lined up in a field just outside the track and football stadium. A thunderous applause ensued.
High school principal Jim Kane took a microphone and acknowledged the reason for the celebration. This group of exceptional kids earned the PIAA team title in Unified Track and Field. Soon, coaches Katie Schkolenko and Marilyn Jansco started to drape gold medals around their necks and they were showered with cheers.
"This was a perfect way to culminate the year of the pandemic by having our outstanding students perform such an incredible feat of winning the state championship," Wallenpaupack superintendent Michael Silsby said. "We are incredibly proud of them."
The team earned a place in school history.
Wallenpaupack's group won the first state team championship for the school and Wednesday's ceremony, beneath sun-soaked skies, brought a sense of pride and accomplishment for all involved.
"Even on a warm summer day, I got goosebumps from this," Schkolenko said. "To see these kids get their medals for all of the accomplishments we've had this season. This was a season we weren't even sure was going to happen. We've had kids get quarantined, we had to be virtual sometimes, we had a lot of virtual meets this year. This group of kids met every challenge head on. They were not afraid to roll with it. They were not afraid to try harder, to give it everything they got, so this is definitely a well-earned reward."
Unified track and field is a partnership between Special Olympics of Pennsylvania (SOPA) and the PIAA. Unified teams include athletes with and without disabilities and provides opportunities for all athletes to train and compete together. Unified sports celebrate abilities and promote powerful inclusionary experiences for all.
Wallenpaupack sponsored its first team in 2018. The team participated in one shortened pilot season in 2018, a full season in 2019, a cancelled season due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and this spring, while still navigating the challenges of the pandemic. Because of that many teams competed in virtual meets to limit travel and potential exposure. Wallenpaupack Unified competed in-person when possible, but had several virtual meets. Times and distances were measured by PIAA officials at the school stadium and submitted electronically to SOPA to compile team scores.
"It's been a wonderful opportunity for us," Jansco said. "Our students work together so well, they work so hard throughout the year just promoting inclusion and then just showing students that commitment and hard work and teamwork pays off."
This year's championship season started with a win in the 2021 Regional Championship Virtual Competition. Wallenpaupack scored 112 points. Lackawanna Trail finished second with 108.5, Carbondale Area finished third with 98, followed by Crestwood (92), Abington Heights (86) and Western Wayne.
Each Regional champion advanced to the PIAA meet where only a team champion is crowned as the emphasis of the Unified program is to promote team over individual achievement. This year's state championship competition was a virtual meet.
Wallenpapack won the team title with 118.3 points. Mount Pleasant placed second with 114.81 with J.P McCaskey third with 112, followed by Bristol (96.99), East Stroudsburg South (71), General McLane (67) and Souderton Area (58).
"It feels really special that our team got to do this and that everyone, like the whole school came together out here to come and celebrate our accomplishments," said senior Jia-Li Puma Stehlik, 18, who competed in the 800, the long jump and as a member of the 1,600 relay. "We have great coaches and great faculty and great administration that made this all happen. I feel so lucky that we got to have a full season and we were able to participate and do all these things and that the community has come together to support us like this.
"Especially for my teammates and I, we worked very hard with all the obstacles and the unprecedented pandemic, so I am very thankful."
Wallenpaupack team members include, Katie August, Cole Bortree, Yohan Cromwell, Angela Cykosky, Aaron Fenkner, Lizzy Forder, Devin Galante, Nick Memoli, Michael Phillips, Jia-Li Puma Stehlik, Patrick Remelgado, Amanda Schnatz, Stephanie Schnatz and Navdeep Singh.
"We worked so hard for it," said sophomore Cole Bortree, 16, who competed in the shot put, the 100 and as a member of the 400 relay. "It's such an accomplishment for all of us, because we all worked together and we all went through it together. We had our ups and downs, it was a great moment. There is something special about it."
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