I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Dan Plunkett

Getting everyone on the field

Dan Plunkett's son Colin loves his Sundays. That's when the 14-year-old, soon to be 15, who is a highly-functional but non-verbal young man with autism, gets to play lacrosse with a team of similar kids all coached by his dad.

"He sees his buddies, wears a jersey, and gets to run around a lot," Plunkett says. "We've got boys and girls participating from the age of 6 through 18, plus 10 to 15 athletes who play for local schools volunteering their time...to help out." Plunkett says it's a joy to coach all of his four sons, age 9 through 16, as well as all the hundreds of young athletes he's coached in youth football and then lacrosse for more than 10 years. He's proud of the regular trips to the postseason made with his eldest son, now 16.

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Son as inspiration
Something shifts a bit in Plunkett's tone when he speaks about how Colin inspired him to create the region's first lacrosse effort for developmentally challenged kids last year.

"He was very shy until I brought him out onto the Pop Warner football field and introduced him around," the proud dad recalls. "Now everyone asks for him and he knows all the characters that play youth football." Plunkett found that the rough and tumble of football, as well as its big, open fields of play, didn't work for kids like Colin.

He was already coaching lacrosse teams for Admiral Youth Lacrosse and asked if they'd be interested in him starting a challenger program similar to one he'd heard about operating on Long Island. That effort, Challenger Athletics, was founded by a father/coach similar to Plunkett four years ago and has established a track record for its successful coaching work.

Community embraces team
"The Admiral league green-lighted my idea within a week. The Knights of Columbus, Lagrange chapter, gave funds for insurance and Yorktown and Sports Barn provided supplies," he says about the outpouring of support from the community. "We had between 20 and 30 kids each week last year, coming from as far away as Rockland and Sullivan counties."

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The field where everyone plays on Sundays, at the Arlington School District's Union Vale Middle School in Lagrangeville, is enclosed, which Plunkett says is a good thing. "We work one-on-one and ensure that everyone has a good time out there," the coach adds, noting how Colin likes to walk the track. "We use softer balls, like stress balls, and we don't use helmets or gloves, because it's important to avoid physical contact." Plunkett says.

In addition to his family's personal experience, he is learning more and more about the autism spectrum as of late in his new role as grounds manager at the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg. Before that the Dutchess County native worked for 14 years with his own landscaping business.

He grew up with a single mom, attending Arlington High and making money mowing lawns until he went off to college and met his wife, Roxanne, who was from a large family in Kingston and is now a pharmacist. Dan Plunkett first got into coaching when his oldest boy started to play sports a decade ago. "I found that I like helping kids out and believe that coaching them well in sports helps them become successful adults," he says.

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"I stepped up... I believe there's a right path." Recently, Plunkett was appointed to the board for the Hudson Valley Admirals youth football program. Plunkett and his wife, Roxanne, say their son Colin opened doors for everyone in his close-knit, sports and study-oriented family. The teen attends Arlington High, where he shares a class with six others, and he wants to enjoy the same sports as his dad and brothers.

Parents are thrilled
"My greatest moment was when a mom came over to tell me that the occupational therapist at the school her daughter was in told her how much better her daughter's overall coordination and strength were since she began playing lacrosse," Plunkett says.

"There is no better way to work on weak motor or social skills then when a child is having fun playing a game in a setting where there is no pressure to compete. Everyone is there just to have a good time." He says that equals the many years, and myriad students, he still hears shouts of "Coach! Coach!" from every time he walks the halls of local schools. "We all started off as coaches and players, but now we are all just one big family," he says.

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