Hundreds play ball in inclusive tournament

Bocce event grew out of disabilities law that requires equal opportunities in sports

March 03, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

At Western High School in Baltimore, few students had heard of bocce when coach Mary Hain was putting together a team of players, with and without disabilities, in anticipation of Maryland's first Unified Indoor Bocce State High School Invitational.

Senior Thea Chase said she came out for the team thinking that "it was hibachi, some kind of eating contest." In fact, bocce is a sport that resembles bowling.

Ultimately, three freshmen and several seniors, including Chase, joined the team and trained for the interscholastic competition, which pairs students with intellectual and other disabilities with their high school peers.

"There has been a lot of bonding and camaraderie," Hain said. "And now there are a lot of different relationships at school."

The all-girls team in bright red jerseys bested North Hagerstown High, 10-1, in the first round of the tournament Thursday in Eldersburg, where a former clothing warehouse was transformed into dozens of 60-foot-long bocce courts. The competition drew 64 teams from nine school systems and offered all players, regardless of ability, a chance to represent their schools in spirited competition.

This first interschool tournament grew out of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law, enacted in 2008, which ensures that students with disabilities are provided with equivalent opportunities in interscholastic sports, physical education and intramural sports.

"Maryland is the only state doing these interscholastic games," said Patricia Fegan, president of Special Olympics of Maryland, which hosted the event. "This is all about sports equities and giving everyone the same opportunities to participate."

Special-needs students are no longer isolated in the classroom, and that is translating to the playing field, she said. The pride of players wearing their school colors, representing their schools and being celebrated as athletes was evident throughout the arena, Fegan said.

"This is changing lives and school climates, especially for students who were often ostracized because of a disability," she said.

Players cheered on their teammates, their opponents and even those playing on nearby courts.

"They are encouraging each other," said Perry Baker, supervisor of athletics for Frederick County schools. "That is the whole idea here today."

At the opening ceremony, Raeann Robisch, a sophomore at Urbana High School in Frederick County, confidently recited the Special Olympics pledge — "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt" — before a crowd of nearly 1,000. Until she joined the school's bocce team, she often dined alone in the school cafeteria, she said. Now she sits with her teammates at lunchtime and knows they will greet her in the school hallways.

"I am making friends and having fun with other kids in sports," she said.

Kristen Reda, an Urbana senior, said, "Bocce is connecting everyone in school, not just during matches."

This academic year marks the first in which school systems across the state must provide at least one interscholastic sports opportunity for students with disabilities. That requirement increases to three such events next year, ideally one for each sports season.

While other school systems in the state are organizing similar inclusive events in tennis, track and swimming, several have found bocce ideally suited to all skill levels, Fegan said.

The game, which traces its roots to ancient Rome, is played on a flat, level surface, usually 60 feet long and 10 feet wide. Players divide into two teams, each of which tosses four balls. The balls that land closest to the target, known as a pallina, score points.

"It's like playing marbles," said Keyarn Edwards, a sophomore at City College. "Everybody gets a chance."

With his team down several points, Edwards advised senior Eric Dixon to get down on one knee for his toss, a position that would help him curve the ball and come closer to the target. The ploy worked, and Dixon scored a point for City. City lost, 16-3, to Urbana, but the team moved on to the next game with enthusiasm.

"We are just warming up," said City sophomore Adream Townes.

Several contests continued into the evening hours, but for many, scores took second place to the spirit.

"It really was a win-win day for everyone who walked in the door," said Kelley Schniedwind, spokeswoman for Special Olympics of Maryland.

Mike Bovino, senior adviser to the organization, commended Maryland legislators for "promoting this kind of understanding. This law will be a legacy that will create opportunities for inclusion and will help make barriers disappear."

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