More Than a Game: Matt Ficca has grown to be the heart of Whitman’s team

May 13, 2012

The rain started coming down an hour before the game was supposed to start last Wednesday. Thirty minutes out, puddles started to form near the dugouts. It was clear to everyone that the baseball game between Whitman and Kennedy would be cancelled. For the Whitman players, that meant that the senior night introductions would be moved to the school cafeteria. As the players waited in the dugouts for the officials to call the game, two Whitman players made their way toward the edge of the field to warm up. Matt Ficca, 21, a senior in the school’s Learning for Independence program, threw the ball a few times to his friend Evan Reeves, a senior outfielder, gave a thumbs up and headed back to the dugout.

“We have four boys, so we’re a big sports household,” said Meredith Ficca, Matt’s mom. Matt, who is autistic, had grown up playing basketball, soccer and baseball, so it was no surprise to either Meredith or her husband David when Matt came home his freshman year and said he was going to be the manager for the Vikings’ junior varsity baseball team. Steve Sutherland, the junior varsity coach and Matt’s special education teacher, had offered to drive him home from practices and games. “I just needed to know that he could make it to all of the games,” Sutherland said. “She’s very busy with having four kids, and he was just so happy to be there.”

For Sutherland, then in his second year of teaching at the Bethesda school, tasking one of his special education students to manage his team seemed natural. Sutherland had played junior varsity baseball at Watkins Mill, where his coach, Steve Orsini (now at Poolesville), had done the same thing. As a teenager, Sutherland had seen first hand how everyone benefited from the relationship.

Five years later, the players at Whitman have fully embraced Matt. Having spent the last five springs with the team shagging balls, organizing the helmets, and raking the fields, Matt has truly become one of the team. “It’s a big high school and you’re kind of taking a chance that kids don’t get it,” Meredith said. “Kids have always been particularly nice to Matt, but the relationships are much deeper. I feel like kids know him.”

When Matt first started high school, the idea of dropping him off at a football game alone made her uncomfortable. Who would he sit with? Who would look out for him? “Being part of the team has been a huge growth,” she said. “The independence factor has been tremendous.” His friends call to meet him for dinner or the movies. They invite him to parties or to hang out at the mall with them.

That’s why, even after Wednesday’s game was called, Kennedy’s players stayed in the dugout as Matt trotted out onto field. The coaches pulled back the tarp and Matt took the mound. Even with no game, there would still be a ceremonial first pitch. Matt joked around, shaking off the first two calls from the catcher, then sent the ball to home plate.

Said Meredith, “The best part of all of this is he’s learned how to be a teenager.”

8for More high school coverage: Go to allmetsports.com. Email ideas for More Than a Game to sandyst@washpost.com

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