EAST MARLBOROUGH >> It’s unlike any high school competition you are ever likely to see.
Although the competition is fierce, there is very little pressure and virtually no angst – just a whole lot of joy. No angry parents, no arguing of calls or sniping among teammates.
No, the 2019 Chester County Interscholastic Unified Bocce Championship – held on Thursday afternoon at Unionville – was very different indeed. And the most notable contrast is that the smile quotient is off the charts.
“I like it because I get to meet new friends,” said Downingtown East captain Trish Koser, who also participates in other Special Olympic sports like basketball and soccer.
They crowned the first-ever county champion as West Chester Henderson’s White team topped the Henderson Garnet squad in the final. But there were no losers on Thursday. That is a well-worn cliché, but for a competition that brings together special education and general education students, it is so true.
“I say all the time that I work very hard, but when I see our athletes succeeding, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Kelsey Foster, who is the Pennsylvania Special Olympics School and Youth Leadership Coordinator.
Foster was on hand for the culmination of the inaugural season, but the bocce program is in its 11th season nationally, and fifth within the state. Thursday’s competition drew six teams from four area high schools, and athletes with and without special needs teamed up as equal participants.
“It’s incredibly important to work with our special needs student athletes,” said Unionville senior Emily Holmes. “They are just like us, and the more you are around them, the more you learn that.”
BOCCE: THE PERFECT VEHICLE
Who knew that the ancient game of bocce, with roots stretching all the way back to the Roman Empire, could wind up being a perfect vehicle to bring together students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with the general student population?
“We were trying to find a venue into the schools and obviously our main component is sports,” Foster explained. “We call bocce the great equalizer, where people with any type of disability can excel.”
Unionville got things kicked off a year ago with a pilot program. For this first official season, Henderson and Unionville had so much interest that they each wound up each fielding two squads. The other teams come from Downingtown East and West Chester East.
“It’s not like anybody has to run 10 miles or do anything ultra-athletic,” said Unionville head coach Bernie Hutchinson, who is also a parent of a special needs child. “Many of our kids just can’t do that. This is all more social.
“It’s indoors, so our kids with disabilities don’t have to worry about going through mud or rocks. And each match is 30 minutes, and for some that’s a lot of time.”
Initially played among Italian immigrants in the United States, traditional bocce is staged on natural soil or asphalt courts that measure 90 feet by 13.1 feet. The Special Olympics Unified version is often called boccia, which is a shorter-range game played on a smooth surface, and was first introduced to the Paralympics in 1984.
“I like (bocce),” said Jack Badeux, 19, from Unionville. “It’s my first time playing a sport.
“I really like my teammates. We just have a great time. We’re friends.”
IT STARTED WITH BEST BUDDIES
At Henderson, bocce practice started back on December 3rd. Most programs practice for 90 minutes twice a week, and the regular season contests have been going on since late December.
“I really enjoy all of the other team members,” said Max Xiang. “I like being involved with other people, and we work hard.”
Xiang, 17, also plays basketball on the Henderson junior varsity squad. And like many special needs students, he is also a team manager for the Warriors’ varsity hoops team.
“A lot of our students have been managers and supporters of our teams, but this is their opportunity to be a member of a PIAA varsity sport, and compete side by side with our regular students,” said Jamie Wagner, who is the Henderson co-head coach along with Rob McMahon.
Wagner and McMahon are also the Best Buddies Advisors at Henderson, which is an organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-on-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for the disabled.
Many of the coaches, participants and spectators got into the bocce program through Best Buddies.
“We have a very strong Best Buddies chapter at Henderson, so this was a natural step,” McMahon pointed out.
“When you watch these kids play, you can’t tell the difference between the partner and the athlete. They are all just teammates.”
THE SMILE QUOTIENT IS OFF THE CHARTS
Each team sports eight competitors with a mix of special and general education students. On Thursday, three lanes were set up diagonally at Unionville’s gym. A large, enthusiastic crowd of spectators filled the grandstands, which also included the Unionville pep band.
The West Chester East cheerleading squad was also on hand, and lined the entry way as all six teams were announced. All of the participants ran onto the court to an ovation, and there were a lot of high-fives and broad grins.
“They are super-pumped,” said West Chester East head coach Kevan Garvin, who is a Special Education teacher at the school. “It’s something that they might not get to experience. It’s a packed crowd, people cheering them on. It’s a very rewarding and special experience.”
The competitors sit on chairs adjacent to the lanes to watch the action, and take turns getting up and rolling balls as close as they can to a target ball, called a jack. There is a lot of clapping and encouragement from every corner of the gym, and, of course, more smiles than you’ll ever see at most other high school competitions.
And many of the special needs students can barely contain their excitement while competing and cheering on the others.
“It’s a great way to brighten my day,” said Holmes, who is also involved in the Best Buddies program.
“Bocce is a great way to get people that normally wouldn’t compete in a sport and get them involved,” added Downingtown East sophomore Alex Romano.
“I’ve met a lot of best buddies I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I’ve developed some great friendships.”
The bocce program is supported by the PIAA as well as the Bureau of Special Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“I am extremely proud of our Best Buddies program,” said Henderson Principal Jason Sherlock. “Our students have embraced the program, and I am excited to now have a bocce team at our high school.”
A UNIQUE CHANCE TO BECOME A MENTOR
Garrett Gripton is a muscular 6-foot, 210-pound junior at Downingtown East and he’s played football going back as far as he can remember. He is a middle linebacker for the Cougars in the fall, and even though his only experience with the sport was beach bocce, he became involved with the unified program late last fall.
“This program is the best thing I’ve seen in our school in a while,” Gripton said. “It’s really building community.
“It’s nice to see other kids have a chance to play sports, especially special needs kids.”
Somebody like Gripton, who plays high school athletics at the highest level, has a chance to uniquely become a mentor to everyone else on the team, as well as opposing players.
“Our general students are very patient and kind,” said Hutchinson. “They are able to show them how to be good team players and the value of teamwork.
“They will do things on the weekend without me. They will invite the special needs kids to go to lunch or a movie.”
According to Wagner, Henderson’s home matches this season have drawn hundreds of students in addition to family and friends. At West Chester East’s only home game this season, the Vikings competed before a packed house.
“One side of the gym was completely full,” Garvin reported. “A lot of the other sports teams came out in support as well as the student body.
“Teachers are now recognizing my kids in the hallway and are encouraging them or asking them about the team. It increases their social awareness, and they have interactions with the regular students where they might not otherwise have the chance.”
GAINING TRACTION, CHANGING LIVES
At Henderson, the bocce program didn’t start with a bang, but it’s steadily gained traction ever since.
“We were a little nervous at first because not too many students showed up, but then they started walking in and asking how to be involved,” Wagner said.
“Our students see the opportunity not just to hang out with the kids, but actually interact with them as equal teammates.”
Downingtown East head coach Meghan Funderburg has also noticed a change in the way special needs students are perceived now that the bocce program has been instituted.
“We have the support of the whole school behind us,” she said.
“Seeing regular education teachers, and other staff members, high-fiving the kids in the hallway, and the rest of their classmates congratulating them, that’s the part that has been the most amazing to me.”