By Shawn McFarland
Co-Editor in Chief
It was late in August when Springfield College men’s gymnastics head coach Stephen Posner received a call that had been a year in the making. While the season doesn’t kick off until January, he learned that his squad would be gaining a new teammate.
In partnership with Team IMPACT, a program which pairs children with life-threatening illness with college athletic teams, Zachary LaBroad, an 8-year old with cerebral palsy, will be matched up with the Pride.
Springfield’s men’s gymnastics is the fifth Pride sports squad to be paired with a child, and the 1,000th pairing overall for the program – spreading across 45 states.
“It just happened to be that our men’s gymnastics team happened to be number 1,000,” Springfield Director of Athletics Craig Poisson said. “But it’s fitting because of what our mission is. That leadership and service to others, and what Team IMPACT stands for, why they exist. What they do with their children is remarkable. We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”
Added men’s gymnastics coach Stephen Posner, “Whether we’re one, or 10, or 1,000, we’re going to work with the child and try and be a support system for him.”
The partnership with Team IMPACT first began at Springfield with former softball coach Julie Perrelli, when she and her program “drafted” Celia LaBarbera into the program. Since then, team interest in the program has only increased.
“Football was quick to be matched soon after that,” Poisson said. Luke Bradley has been with the Pride’s football team since the spring of 2013. He has led the team onto the field during home games, been named as an honorary captain and spent practices with the squad.
Since then, baseball, women’s volleyball and women’s basketball have joined in. Lisa Hartley joined the women’s basketball team for the 2015-16 season, and became a welcome presence among the players.
“It was actually really fun,” junior Heather King said. “She came to visit us a lot. We’d tried to have her around as much as possible, because she had fun with us.”
Lisa was involved with women’s basketball on a variety of levels. She would attend practices, watch games, and even participated in the school talent show with the team.
While Posner didn’t learn that his team would be paired with a child until the end of the summer, he sent in an application to Team IMPACT prior to the start of last season. Once a team applies, the Team IMPACT program does it’s best to find the perfect match, a process that can sometimes be time consuming. Poisson added that there are several other Springfield teams interested in being paired with a Team IMPACT child. But just like men’s gymnastics did, each team is waiting for its perfect match.
Posner gained interest from watching the several other Springfield teams work with the program, and thought it would be a good addition to his team.
“I think we’re a close knit group, and if we can help integrate a family in any way, or give [Zachary] some of the positives that we feel that we have as a group, we’d love to do it,” Posner said.
Zachary, along with the rest of his family, will be introduced to the team on Saturday, Sept. 24 following practice. A tour of the campus will follow, as the gymnasts will have a chance to get to know their new teammate.
Team IMPACT requires a leadership team to be assembled to work directly with the family and Team IMPACT itself. When Posner sent out an email looking for willing participants, he wasn’t sure of the response he would receive. But to his pleasant surprise, his athletes quickly showed an outpouring of interest. Senior Nick Jama, juniors Philip Ordonez, Josh Dieker, Dan Terrano and sophomore Janiik Haas make up the five-man team.
“When I heard that Zachary would be joining our team through Team IMPACT I was very excited and immediately wanted to join the leadership team,” Haas said. “This is an amazing opportunity for both Zach and the program so I wanted to be a part of the leadership team that made it happen.”
Working with Zachary won’t be Haas’ first experience with children with disabilities. The sophomore has spent the past four years teaching special needs children sports at The Sensation Nation in California.
“Being able to see the impact this organization has on these kids’ lives just by devoting a small amount of my time to coaching them is absolutely humbling. Learning the sports they love not only teaches the kids important fine motor skills, but also greatly increases their confidence in everything they do. This experience will definitely help me to connect with Zach more and hopefully to be able to communicate with him better,” added Haas.
The goal is to make Zachary feel as much as a member of the team as possible, but the experience will benefit more than just him.
“I think it’s good for the team,” Posner said. “To realize that there are all kinds of people with all kinds of difficulties, it kind of puts things into perspective.”
Often in sports, wins, losses and stats can cloud an athlete’s view of reality. But having a Team IMPACT child around tends to change a player’s view, Poisson noted.
“Because at the end of the day, it puts a loss or win into perspective. Because it’s a lot easier to say it puts a loss into perspective when you’re associated with a child who is facing a life-threatening illness,” Poisson said. “It frames it appropriately for the student-athletes and the coaches.”
King added that having Lisa in attendance at basketball games gave the team an added motivation factor.
“It was nice having here there,” King said. “Not only are we playing for ourselves, but we’re playing for her because she is a part of our team. She’s inspirational.”
While nothing has been set in stone yet, Zachary will likely be an active member of the team. From attending meets, practices and exhibitions, to coming to team cookouts, his presence will be felt at all times.
“I’m glad that we found a match,” Posner said. “Hopefully we can be helpful, and do some good things.”
Shawn McFarland can be reached on Twitter at @McFarland_Shawn