By ALICIA NOTARIANNI
8:02 PM EST, January 29, 2011
It seemed at the time to be hard luck for the Washington County Warthogs.
The Special Olympics floor hockey team was scheduled to play one of two required qualifying games before the Maryland state tournament. Then Mother Nature happened along with a nasty snowstorm and the qualifier was canceled.
The team needed to play another qualifier at its home rink or it would not be permitted to compete at states.
Warthog head coach Jay Seipler began to brainstorm.
"I thought, 'We have an ice sports complex here in town. Why not try that?'" Seipler said. "We were desperate."
Seipler reached out to local ice hockey teams to see if they would be willing to challenge the Warthogs. When one team agreed, the Warthogs received permission from Special Olympics to sanction that game as a qualifier.
What began as an act of desperation five years ago resulted in an annual face-off between the Warthogs and a local ice hockey team. In turn, the teams — one from Special Olympics, the other from a local travel league — have developed a cooperative relationship characterized by goodwill, and mutual teaching and learning.
"Our guys loved it. Their guys loved it. It's built a community connection," Seipler said. "This year, they contacted us. It's gone from us soliciting them to them saying, 'Are we gonna do this again?'"
The tradition continued Saturday morning with a floor hockey match at the Potomac Center in Hagerstown.
Warthogs players range in age from 23 to 40. One is a woman, the rest are men, and all have intellectual or cognitive disabilities. Seipler said the annual scrimmage has helped change opposing teams' perceptions of people with disabilities.
"Last year, some of the guys (on the opposing team) were truly amazed that our goal tender actually drove a car," Seipler said. "Another guy said, 'I thought you guys were all in wheelchairs.' And here we are playing competitively again this team."
This year, the Warthogs played against the Hagerstown Northstars. With a season standing of 11-1-1, the Northstars are seeded number one in their division heading into the Maryland Scholastic Hockey League state championships.
Sean Kreps, 15, of Clear Spring, is a Northstars assistant captain. Kreps said the Warthogs provided a demonstration of play for the Northstars to clarify the differences between floor hockey and ice hockey. Then the game began. Kreps said he was impressed with the Warthogs' teamwork and level of play.
"I didn't really expect them to come out and keep up with us because we are high-level hockey players. But they play really well," Kreps said. "They work as a team to move the puck around together. They keep each other's spirits up, cheering each other on when they score and cheering each other up when they miss."
David Blitz, 38, of Hagerstown, has been playing for the Warthogs for 10 years. He said playing against league ice hockey teams is good practice.
"(The Northstars) were a lot faster than us. It was a challenge for us. It was good to get us ready for the state competition," Blitz said.
Following the game, players from the teams shot hoops and ate pizza together. Northstars head coach Jamie Blackwood said his team would provide free tickets to each of the Warthogs for one of the Northstars' upcoming games. He also invited the Warthogs' players to join the Northstars for some "ice time" while they practiced.
Seipler said the partnership benefits both teams.
"Our guys pick up tips and improve their basic skills. Their guys learn about individuals with disabilities. It's been great for both sides," he said.
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