Athletes make state hockey tourney fast, friendly, fun

Jesse Hagaman, left, from Toms River, moves with the puck near South Orange goaltender Sean Smith during the New Jersey Special Olympics floor hockey tournament Sunday in Galloway Township. More than 200 athletes played in the two-day event. ‘It’s big-time competition,’ said Jeff Baldino, senior director of competition for Special Olympics New Jersey.

Ben Fogletto

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Bryan Nelson made a spin move and scored a pretty, backhanded goal Saturday.

Nelson pumped his fist in celebration. But the weekend was really about the fist bumps he exchanged off the court.

More than 200 athletes from around the state gathered at Richard Stockton College for Special Olympics New Jersey's state floor hockey tournament Saturday and Sunday.

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"My favorite part is being with my teammates. We're like a family," said Nelson, a 24-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident who helped the South Jersey Athletic Club Warriors win a silver medal in the top division.

The event featured 15 teams in five divisions, based on skill level. Special Olympics consist of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Teams have both males and females. The minimum age is 8, and there is no age limit.

The teams qualified for the state tournament through a six-week regular season. The Warriors, made up mostly of local players, had not lost until Saturday, when a team from Bergen County beat them twice to take the Division I title.

"It's just having fun and competing," said the Warriors' David Wardell, a 25-year-old from Millville. "If we lose, we lose."

As Nelson and Wardell talked, they bumped fists with both teammates and opponents as they walked by. Every team stayed at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club overnight Saturday.

"It's the sportsmanship and ability to interact with people from all over the state," said volunteer Linda Cobb, from the Cedarville section of Lawrence Township. "You see friendships they build from sport to sport."

There were more than 40 volunteers, including medical personnel, coaches and other helpers.

Warriors coach Pete Clark, of Mays Landing, joked between games with members of the opposing team.

"Everybody's family here," Clark said. "It doesn't matter who they are."

That's not to say it wasn't competitive, though. The game requires significant skill and coordination. While the rules are similar to ice hockey, the sticks have no blades - they're just poles. The puck is made of felt, with a diameter of 20 centimeters, a hole in the middle and a groove on the top for the sticks to control it.

"It's big-time competition," said Jeff Baldino, the senior director of competition for Special Olympics New Jersey. "We have a lot of very, very skilled athletes."

But it's mostly about having fun.

Marie Kelly of Vineland said this is one of the highlights of the year for her son, Kevin -along with a team barbecue she hosts every summer.

"Kevin was so excited he hardly slept (Friday) night," Kelly said.

This was the second year Stockton hosted the tournament, which previously was held at the Wildwoods Convention Center.

Spectators packed bleachers that were set up next to each of the two courts. There were digital scoreboards and public-address announcers for each game.

"It's a very good atmosphere," Nelson said. "It's just fun."

Note: The Ocean Knights, from Ocean County, won the silver medal in Division II.

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