Unified track & field first came to Lancaster County in 2018. The driving force behind it was Nicole McCoy, whose day job is being an adapted physical education and health teacher in the School District of Lancaster.
“She is solely responsible for bringing Unified sports to the area,” husband Brett McCoy said.
Nicole and Brett McCoy have been the tandem coaches of McCaskey’s Unified track & field team from the start. Since then, the program has been on a steady climb to the top, resulting in the Red Tornado capturing the state championship less than two months ago.
“This year was special in that our team got it,” Brett McCoy said. “They came together for all the right reasons. They got the bigger message.”
For those unfamiliar with Unified track & field, students with disabilities (athletes) and those without (partners) compete in the 100-meter dash, 400 dash, 800 run, 4-by-100 relay and 4-by-400 relay, as well as the long jump, shot put and javelin with modified implements.
“It’s an outlet that the kids don’t necessarily get elsewhere,” McCoy said. “I don’t know how else to explain it. … If they go out for the basketball team, they either get cut or made a manager, or get that one dribble down the court where everybody claps. It’s a show. It’s not them competing to the best of their ability. This is competitive. … It’s a sport.”
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Teams in Lancaster County compete in three tri-meets during the regular season, followed by a county meet. Win the county meet and you go to regionals, akin to the District Three championships. Win regionals and you go to the state meet.
In 2018, McCaskey finished third at the regional meet. In 2019, the Red Tornado finished second at the regional meet. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the 2020 season being canceled before it got going.
In 2021, McCaskey finished first at the regional meet to qualify for the state meet for the first time. But the 2021 state meet was held virtually, meaning each team held their own home meet and logged their participants’ best times and distances, which were then compared to the other teams across the commonwealth, with McCaskey placing third.
In 2022, McCaskey won the Lancaster County meet, but had its regional meet against York Tech canceled due to inclement weather. Both schools were eventually selected as two of nine teams to compete in the state meet, held in conjunction with the PIAA Track and Field Championships at Shippensburg University in late May.
However, Unified’s COVID-19 protocols resulted in a limited field for states, which meant of 28 Tornado participants on its Unified team, only 12 could go: six students with disabilities and six without.
Those McCaskey dozen ended up accounting for eight first-place finishes, six seconds and five thirds.
It should be noted that Unified doesn’t recognize individual achievements, meaning no individual medals. The focus is entirely on the team aspect.
“All of us started jumping up and down,” McCaskey’s Aiden Ortiz recalled of the Tornado being revealed as the state champions. “We hugged each other. Some people cried. … It was a great moment, getting gold.”
Ortiz played basketball and baseball in his youth, but was limited in doing so due to chronic idiopathic uticaria, essentially an athletically-induced condition where the skin gets irritated when exercising.
“I would run around and my skin would get super itchy,” he said.
When in eighth grade, Ortiz posted impressive numbers in endurance tests in physical education class, catching the attention of his teacher, Brett McCoy, who suggested Ortiz give Unified a shot a year later.
Ortiz, who now manages his skin condition with treatment, later entered the 2022 campaign expecting to be a senior leader for the Tornado’s Unified team, only to miss the first two weeks of the season after missing a test in his favorite class, psychology.
“From that moment on, I just locked in,” Ortiz said. “I promised my teammates I’m not going to let them down ever again.”
At the state meet, Ortiz won the long jump with a personal best distance of 5.50 meters, placed second in the 100 (12.57 seconds) and ran a leg of the winning 4-by-100 relay team (49.59 seconds).
He also graduated from McCaskey and is set to attend Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in the fall. He has aspirations of studying residential remodeling technology and competing in the long jump for the college’s track and field team.
Meanwhile, the Tornado Unified program has now gone from being a club sport in its first four years of operation to having been brought under the auspices of McCaskey athletics, beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. The distinction has helped ease some of the financial burden for the McCoys, who have hustled in recent years to obtain sponsorships from local businesses to offset the cost of sneakers and spikes, among other items.
It should also help those on McCaskey’s Unified team get similar recognition given to other sports at the school.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Brett McCoy said. “And this (winning a state championship) is a big step in getting that recognition.”