This past weekend, Nov. 2-4, Villanova University hosted its 30th annual Fall Fest for Special Olympics Pennsylvania. The festivities began Friday afternoon with a Torch Run that began in Philadelphia and ended at the steps of Bartley Hall. The three days of competition featured 1,200 athletes, thousands of volunteers, and multitudes of incredible stories.
The night of the first day of competition concluded with Opening Ceremonies in the Finneran Pavilion. Each county had representatives (two Special Olympics athletes, the county’s Local Program Hosts, and some Villanova University varsity athletes) walk along the court holding their county’s banner. Afterward, ESPN anchor Michele Steele and Villanova University Men’s Basketball Coach Jay Wright spoke to the crowd about Special Olympics’ mission of inclusion before announcing that Special Olympics athletes would play a Unified Basketball Game alongside the Villanova Men’s Basketball Team. The game featured 10 Special Olympics PA (SOPA) basketball players from three counties: Erie City, Lawrence, and Philadelphia. The athletes that competed, along with their respective counties, were as follows: Matthew Grabowski (Philly), Ryan Bogan (Philly), Joseph Rynkiewicz (Philly), Andrae McElroy (Lawrence), Chris Podbiekski (Lawrence), Harry Allen (Lawrence), Dave Robson (Lawrence), Alex Wilkes (Erie City), Joe Jones (Erie City) and Kenny Parraway (Erie City).
The Unified Basketball Game featured two 10-minute halves with a dunk contest in between. Midway through each half, the players subbed out to ensure that all the Special Olympic athletes and Villanova Men’s Basketball Players participated. At halftime, the score was 24-21 in favor of the blue team with Matthew Grabowski of Philadelphia County leading the scoring with 19 points. The energetic first half was followed by dunks from Jermaine Samuels, Brandon Slater, Colin Gillespie and Eric Paschall. Paschall was able to get Andrae McElroy from Lawrence County involved in feeding him the ball, and Colin Gillespie gave high-fives to the crowd after he completed his dunk on his first attempt. In the end, Gillespie took home the crown, and his teammates all joined him for the interview. As the second half of the game went underway, the game remained very competitive. Some of the athletes started a “Let’s Go Nova” chant, and the contest truly went down to the wire. As time expired, Phil Booth passed the ball to Matthew Grabowski who put it in the net for the victory. His teammates mobbed him on the court, and everyone was ecstatic. The white team prevailed by a score of 42-41 in the entertaining matchup.
Opening Ceremonies and the Unified Basketball Game served as a great way to build up excitement for Fall Fest heading into the rest of the weekend. Additionally, having the Men’s Basketball Team and the Special Olympics athletes compete side by side further emphasized the mission of inclusion. Everyone proved that they belonged on that court and enjoyed themselves while they were out there.