– The memory of one special athlete was kept alive during the 14th annual Special STARS Softball Classic played on Saturday at the Highlands County Sports Complex while another pair of athletes were recognized for a unique friendship.
Joe Singha, who passed away at the end of February, was not forgotten by his fellow athletes who played in the softball tourney. Singha had been a member of the Florida Hospital team for several years and looked forward to the season each year.
This year in his memory, Special STARS established the Joe Singha Memorial Rookie of the Year award. It was presented to the athlete who was playing for their first time on a team and they had to demonstrate excellent playing skills, good sportsmanship and overall team spirit. There were four newcomers to the field this year – Cole Germaine, Elizabeth Jordon, Greg Ruggs and Edrei Lopez.
The coaches from all six teams cast their ballots and selected Elizabeth Jordon as this year's winner. Jordon played on Dee's Place team. Singha's step-sister Angie Ruckman attended the event to present the trophy to Jordon who was totally shocked when her name was called as the winner.
“I am really honored to be selected for this award especially since Joe was my friend,” Jordon said as she wiped tears from her eyes after being announced the winner. “We went to school together. I really miss him.”
Another special award was given to a partner in the community who went beyond the call of duty to make a special athlete feel a part of the team. Johnny (J.T.) Tanner, who played on the Coffee News team, took time out of his busy day on Friday to visit his former teammate William Dickson who receives training at Ridge Area Arc in Avon Park.
Because of his poor health condition, Dickson has not been able to participate in softball for the past couple years. Tanner noticed this and missed his buddy.
“I want William to come to the tournament and be our honorary coach. He can sit in the dug out with his team,” Tanner said when he arrived at Arc. “I miss him.”
As Tanner walked into the computer classroom where Dickson was working, he hid a surprise behind his back for him. Dickson turned to the door and immediately smiled and said, “Look it's my softball buddy.” Tanner then pulled the surprise from behind his back and placed a brand new ball cap on Dickson's head. He asked him to come to the tournament and be his honorary coach. Dickson could not refuse such a request and said “yes” as he was overwhelmed with tears in his eyes.
“My softball buddy came to see me. He wants me to coach the team,” Dickson kept repeating to his friends after Tanner left.
During the tournament, the teams headed for their dugouts after the opening ceremony and Tanner was getting anxious because he did not see his honorary coach on the field. Then through the fog, everyone saw Dickson with his walker slowly entering the gate. Tanner could not wait for him. He ran to Dickson and embraced him. The two walked side by side to the dugout.
Dickson stayed the whole day cheering for his Coffee News team and yelling out encouragement just like a coach would do.
“This means a lot to me,” Tanner said. “William is really special to me.”
Because of their unique friendship, Special STARS presented them each with medals during the awards ceremony. Tanner had the honor of hanging an “Honorary Coach” medal around Dickson's head and Dickson returned the honor by placing the “Heart of Gold” medal around Tanner's neck. The two embraced and shared a very tearful hug.
Tanner was also chosen for the Best Community Athlete award by the game officials. Other awards presented were given to Tim Ritenour, of Dee's Place, won Coach Sportsmanship award; Rob Torres of Beef O'Brady's, won Community Athlete Sportsmanship; John Davis, of Heacock Insurance Group, won Special Athlete Sportsmanship; Bill Sobczak, of Avon Park Youth Academy, won Best Special Athlete; and Hank Brady, of Florida Hospital, won Best Coach.
Partners in the local community joined efforts with individuals with disabilities and played in this coed slow-pitch softball tournament. Each team featured four special athletes playing with three male and three female partners from the community.
The Avon Park Youth Academy, coached by Pete Zeegers, was the winner of the tournament. This was their third year in a row to win. They beat Coffee News, coached by Andy Basso, in the final championship game to take the first place trophy. Coffee News took second place.
The tournament generated more than $5,400. Proceeds from the tournament went to Special STARS to help pay for the 12 different sports and six recreational activities done throughout the year for more than 400 athletes with physical and mental disabilities in Highlands County.