FIVE DAYS AFTER Randallstown and Woodlawn won the Baltimore County boys and girls basketball titles, Jamie Harris played for her own championship.
While Woodlawn's Brittany Taylor and Randallstown's Melvin Aleaze were tossing in jumpers, Harris, a petite Towson senior, was tossing in spares and strikes at a Perry Hall bowling center.
"I'm playing pretty good," Harris, the team captain, said in between bowling and high-fiving her teammates.
Perhaps thousands of people saw the basketball championships. Few beyond Harris and students from 15 other county schools saw them play for the Allied Sports program bowling title, but you'd have a hard time convincing any of the 140 kids and their parents and coaches that their competition meant any less than what Woodlawn and Randallstown played for.
Indeed, at the end of the day, the medals awarded to Parkville, Kenwood and Dundalk, the top three finishers in the tournament, likely carried more lasting significance to the competitors than any of the banners awarded in the other Baltimore County sports because of the sacrifices involved to win them.
"This is a chance for these kids to be a part of something because these are kids that for all intent and purposes won't be on any other varsity team," said Cliff Tomlin, coach of the Woodlawn bowling team.
The Allied program, which offers competition in soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter and softball in the spring, is designed for county students who want to play a sport, but don't have the skill or desire to play for a varsity or junior varsity team. The program is off-limits to students who have played a varsity or JV sport.
The program, which was introduced to the county 11 years ago as an outgrowth of a grant from Baltimore Gas & Electric to the Special Olympics, is as much a part of interscholastic athletics as football, track and lacrosse, and is funded through the school budget. Only two other jurisdictions in the country offer similar programs, and no other Maryland county has an Allied or similar undertaking.
In most cases, Allied athletes are kids who are special education students or who are physically disabled. The competitions are modified to allow kids of various ailments to play, so that, for instance, students in wheelchairs can participate alongside children with cerebral palsy or the developmentally challenged.
"A couple of years ago, there was a kid who was in a wheelchair and all he could do was move his finger," said Tammy Jackson, a Kenwood teacher and coordinator of the county program. "His parents had digital cameras and camcorders to watch him. He pushed a ball down a ramp. His parents were crying. We were crying. Everyone was crying."
However, membership in Allied is also open to kids who don't quite fit in socially with the general student populace, but want to play a sport.
"Even if we don't totally and cognitively understand it, there are students who feel safer in this environment," said Jill Masterman, supervisor in the office of athletics.
"This is for the less competitively driven. In that high school hallway, you have students who are GT [gifted and talented] or honor society who are mingling with and making friends with students who are in special education classes. They don't see them all as really being all that different. There's a connection there that we can't explain cognitively. Kids need to belong to something and being a part of this team or having something to do with a selective group helps them in the way that being a part of any team or any club does for anyone else."
Initially, Jackson said, parents were reluctant to allow their children to play for fear of injury, and they were unwilling to permit competition, feeling that their participation was enough.
Gradually, however, the students, given the opportunity to play, wanted to see it count, just the way football and basketball games do.
"Self-esteem is one of the most important things that we can give these kids," said Cas Hans, Towson's Allied bowling and soccer coach. "They are accepted in the school community. They are on the announcements every morning when we have a match. They live and die, whether they win or lose and they know whether they're doing well or not."
Hans' soccer teams have lost just one match in the past two seasons, so he knows as well as anyone that Allied athletes can tell the score just like kids from other athletic programs.
"Look at them," said Hans, sweeping his arm. "They are accepted. If you just walked in here and you really didn't take a hard look, it's a bowling league. And believe me, they know when they lose. They're not happy."