ATLANTA – The softball programs of the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) have announced their partnership with Special Olympics for the upcoming 2017 season.
Keeping in line with the NCAA Division III partnership launched back in 2011, the goal is to enhance the lives of the student-athletes and Special Olympics athletes through a mutual learning experience; provide a platform for recognition of Special Olympics athletes and Division III student-athletes within their communities; and raise awareness of Special Olympics, its programs and services.
The conference-wide initiative will take various forms across each program, with each individual team partnering with Special Olympics groups in their neighboring communities in unique ways.
The Millsaps College softball team has already begun partnering with Special Olympics athletes in their area, hosting a holiday party for the group. Head coach Erin Clary said that hosting the event was a rewarding experience that she is anxious to continue into the season.
"We are extremely excited about getting to know this group more," Clary said. "Kicking off the holiday season with them was a great way to start building this relationship."
Many of Clary's student-athletes expressed similar sentiment, sharing the pride they take in being able to give back.
"Special Olympics is a great program that I am so excited to get to be a part of this year," junior Cassidy Denoon said. "It feels so good to give back to our community and work with people that can put such a big smile on your face."
The SAA Softball partnership is the first time in the conference's young history that the teams have worked together in a joint project. Head coach Merritt Yackey at Sewanee: The University of the South sees the partnership as an opportunity for student-athletes to gain a greater appreciation for each other through service.
"I am so pleased that the softball coaches have decided to partner with Special Olympics in a joint project," Yackey said. "It will be the first time that our teams have worked in collaboration with each other, providing an opportunity for the student-athletes to know each other rather than simply as opponents, while developing relationships with our local Special Olympic student-athletes."
Berry College head coach Cori Thiermann noted that she is excited at the opportunity of giving back to the community alongside SAA peers.
"We wanted to provide a unique opportunity for our softball conference to work together with a worthy organization," Thiermann said. "This idea sparks a new relationship with our SAA schools by working side by side, with some of our biggest on-field competitors. Some of our programs' best memories consists of giving back to others. We cherish these opportunities and look forward to creating many new memories with our local Special Olympic chapter."
The partnership was created and implemented by the softball coaches of the SAA, an act that Commissioner Jay Gardiner hopes to see grow to other programs around the league.
"I am honored to be associated with a conference that is filled with unselfish and generous student-athletes and coaches," Gardiner said. "This partnership is an example of this spirit of kindness and a desire to give back to our community."
The SAA softball season will begin in mid-February with the league championship to be played April 21-23 in Chattanooga, Tenn.