Special Olympics Southern California competitions throughout the year often lead to familiarity among the teams. Think about it: Year-round sports, often featuring the similar groups of athletes in each region, create a bond over time.
A case can be made that it’s no more apparent than in the winter floor hockey season.
Nine teams featuring 100 athletes were split into three divisions as part of the San Diego County floor hockey regional competition at the Escondido Sports Center on Sunday. Gold medal winners included the Pomona Valley Wildcats, Laguna Hills Stickers and Laguna Hills Hawks.
Fittingly, it was the Hawks and El Cajon Gulls who were featured in the last of the nine contests played. At the 2018 Floor Hockey Championship event, the Hawks prevailed over the Gulls; in 2019, it was the Gulls who came out on top to win gold in their division. Their paths may very well cross once again at the Feb. 29 championship event in Bakersfield.
While the margin of victory at this particular regional competition was bigger than most of their previous meetings, the 7-1 contest featured the same intense action that both teams are known to deliver.
The athletes are apt to chase the puck a little faster, be a little more aggressive. While emotions can run high at moments, the respect is always mutual and any overzealous plays are often met with a pat on the back afterward. Once the game is over and handshakes are exchanged, their game faces disappear and they remember the friendship each contest helps strengthen.
On this day, that included smiles over a tub of Red Vines that was passed around.
“Off the court, they’re best friends,” said coach Tim Stuart, who has been involved with Special Olympics for 19 years, including the past 13-plus years in Orange County.
“But on the court, it’s all-in. They play their hearts out.”
Although the score was “an anomaly,” he said, the Hawks knew they couldn’t let up until the final horn sounded because of how quickly the Gulls could turn the game around. Whether the contests are in San Diego County, Orange County or a neutral site, the high level of competition travels along.
“It’s because they’ve been doing this against each other for, at least, over 10 years now,” Tim said. “They know each other well. They go for it, and it’s fast and aggressive sometimes.
“But, in the end, it’s all a bunch of fun. They love each other and have a good time.”
Inside the SOSC is a blog managed by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.