NEWARK — Upbeat attitudes and rounds of applause came from the Kent Wild Kats dugout at the conclusion of Saturday’s gold-medal match defeat. Even after four consecutive years of winning.
A hard-fought, high-scoring contest ended in a loss for the reigning champion Kent Wild Kats at the University of Delaware’s Bob Hannah Stadium. The athletes worked through sweltering temperatures, with the Newark Dragons using an 11-run final inning to pull ahead and claim a 19-10 victory.
The Wild Kats could not quite muster up a comeback after leading for most of the game and defeating the same Dragons team on Friday, 16-11.
Despite the loss, catcher Jonathan Kroger said the team came into the Summer Games with a mindset that prepared them well.
“Having the fighting mentality to keep the dream up,” he said when asked why they have been so successful in the past. “And keep on fighting for the Special Olympics.”
Coaching Kroger and the rest of the Wild Kats was John Blanchfield, a 31-year veteran in the Special Olympics. He said every year, including this season, he always sees improvement in his athletes, whether new to the game or not.
“I have athletes that come in that have never even played baseball or softball at all,” Blanchfield said. “Through the years, I’ve seen every year they get better.”
Before the team’s two games on Saturday, Blanchfield said that winning is never the primary focus, even as much as his team enjoys the success. Instead, the sportsmanship and respect to fellow competitors is the most important lesson Blanchfield tries to teach.
His team accomplished exactly that Saturday, despite the tough defeat after three wins in their first three games. They also had the chance to reunite with longtime friends during the weekend among the 500-plus athletes and unified partners and over 150 coaches in all sports.
“I just love playing softball, and just coming up and seeing a lot of people I haven’t seen in a while to just hang out with them and have a good time,” said Special Olympic athlete and third baseman Jimmy Butler.
On the field, Butler said the athletes are always listening to the unified partners for advice and help during the game. But at the end of the day, everyone in the dugout had their own job to do, an important lesson for Blanchfield’s team.
“Even though you have coaches, and you have unified partners, you cannot depend on them,” Blanchfield said about what he tells his team. “You guys have a job to do, the unified’s have a job to do, I have a job to do.”
Unified partner and shortstop Jeff Gary echoed similar sentiments to Blanchfield and commended his teammates for what they did on the diamond all season and this weekend at the Games.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Gary. “These guys, they’re easy to like. And playing with them, it’s fun, it really is.”