Autistic field hockey player scores a goal after spontaneous display of sportsmanship

AVON, Conn. (WTNH) – The Avon field hockey team is preparing for a game with feelings from last week still warm in their hearts.

“It was the best night of my life,” said coach Terri Ziemnicki.

In a game against East Catholic High School, magic happened in the third quarter.

“We were making 5 nothing, it was the perfect time to put the JV players into the college game,” Ziemnicki explained. “Then I thought of Kaylie, she had never played a game before.”

Kaylie Murphy is the first player already in the team with autism. Ziemnicki sent Murphy to the field with his counterpart Leah Cuyler.

“It flourished from there, everyone was cheering for it…you could feel it, it was all over the pitch, in the stands,” Ziemnicki said. “Both teams were like, ‘Kaylie, hit the ball, hit the ball.’ At that point, the Catholic East keeper moved wide and Kaylie kicked the ball, he went in. Seeing both teams jump up and down, it was amazing.

“They didn’t tell us anything, we didn’t plan anything,” said East Catholic goaltender Bree Upton, noting that the spontaneous display of sportsmanship embodies their team spirit.

“It shows how strong we are as a team and as a community,” she said. “It’s not about us, it never was, it’s about her and what we could do for her.”

“It was a great feeling, very emotional,” added Kaylie’s mother, Michelle Murphy, who said the team had been so welcoming to her daughter.

She noted that Kaylie is a competent skier and competes in gymnastics during the Special Olympics.

The 14-year-old may be limited in her words, but her energy shows that field hockey suits her perfectly.

“It’s the first real team environment she’s been in and every day she wants to be here and that’s a gift,” Murphy said.

“When her mum first called and asked if we could have Kaylie on the team, she said, ‘She’s an only child’ and I said, ‘Well, she’s going to have 30 new sisters by the end of the season,” Ziemnicki said.

Kaylie’s skills are improving and make no mistake, her new “sisters” are learning too.

“I think she teaches me about hard work and perseverance in the way she comes here in her spare time and works,” Cuyler said.

An inclusive experience. An extraordinary moment. And a season this team will never forget.

“I’ve been coaching here for 38 years and I’ve never done anything like this in my entire coaching career,” Ziemnicki said emotionally.

Kaylie has three more years on the team. Ziemnicki can’t wait to see how this incredible relationship continues to progress.

Catherine J. Martinez