Everyone wins in unified sports

January 22, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI |
  • Robin Shoop tosses for South Hagerstown in a bocce ball match against North Hagerstown on Saturday. The Rebels beat the Hubs, 2-1.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Usually in sports, the bottom line is drawn between winning and losing.

On Saturday, the line was erased. In unified sports bocce ball, there were only winners.

Washington County schools unveiled a new sport in their athletic offerings with an indoor version of lawn bowling. What made it unique was it is the first of three sports — two that will start this school year — that have been mandated for athletes with disabilities.

“This is such a great program,” said North Hagerstown athletic director Marcia Nissel. “I’ve seen more smiles after one day of practice here than I’ve seen in a lot of seasons.”

The new sports were created after Maryland passed The Fitness and Athletics Equity Act during the 2008 legislative session, requiring all schools districts with athletic programs to offer sports for special needs students. There must be at least one sport offered for each season.

“The kids appreciate this,” Nissel said. “Some of them have never had a chance to represent their school in anything — never. And this will give the opportunity to experience that and feel like they are part of it all. I don’t know if they understand the meaning of wearing the school colors, but it doesn’t matter. This is going to be fun.”

Bocce ball is the first of the three sports to be offered in Washington County. It will be followed by track and field in the spring and tennis next fall.

Each sport will be considered a varsity sport, so the athletes will earn letters, be invited to the school’s sports banquet and be able to compete for county and state championships.

“I, myself, was an athlete,” said Eric Michael, Washington County’s supervisor of athletics. “If I had a special needs child, I would love the fact that they would be able to compete. They have offered this program in Frederick for a year and they had a parent write that ‘If you would have told me my child would possibly have a chance to compete while wearing school colors, I would have never believed it.’”

Each of the seven Washington County public schools will be represented. Boonsboro and South Hagerstown have enough athletes to field two teams apiece. Each team has between four and eight players, consisting of disabled athletes and able-bodied partners. Teams will play a three- or four-meet season before Feb. 19’s county tournament at North Hagerstown and the state tournament on March 3 in Sykesville, Md.

“I think this is going to be a great success,” said Mike Tesla, South Hagerstown’s athletic director. “It has been great in other parts of the state. It has been slow getting started, but things are starting to speed up.”

Initially, finding special needs athletes to participate has been difficult. Parents have been cautious and there have been concerns about getting the athletes to and from practices, which are held twice a week.

“There is a need for this,” Tesla said. “We had trouble finding kids to play and getting to the kids who need this the most. Now, it seems like everything is done in front of a TV screen. We had to go and find the kids to come out.”

As the season openers neared there was growing enthusiasm for participating.

“We haven’t had any problems finding coaches for this like we do in other sports,” Nissel said. “The parents have been coming to the practices and have been staying to help. The kids are so much more appreciative.”

North Hagerstown coach Robert Waugh, who is also the Hubs outdoor track and field coach, was excited for the opportunity to start North’s winter offering.

“This is wonderful,” he said. “It is a very rewarding experience and I think it is great for the special needs kids to have a chance to be included in activities with a chance to go to the banquet at the end of the year.”

Waugh first worked with special needs students while he was playing football at Western Maryland. His coach required each member of the team to spend one term helping those with special needs. Waugh decided to work three terms.

“It’s so rewarding to see these kids getting accolades,” Waugh said. “You go to one practice and you can’t help but want to come back.”

Waugh said that one of the benefits is being able to work and spend more time with his bocce ball athletes than his track team because. He has seven to nine bowlers compared to 80-90 track athletes.

While these new additions to the athletic programs have specific objectives, the newest athletes have had an amazing effect on the school. The new program has struck a chord of unity among the student body.

“There are a lot of kids here who probably don’t know where the special education rooms are in the school,” Nissel said. “These are some of the kids that the kids in the general population haven’t met. Now some of them have come out and started working with kids and helping them out. We are seeing some real mentoring going on.”

North Hagerstown’s Zach Schreiber and South Hagerstown’s Hunter Phillips are football stars at their respective schools who have been taken by the sport and become able-bodied partners. Other athletes have started to get involved and have found new friends in the process.

“This is really rewarding,” Schrieber said. “I’ve been going out and trying to get the mainstream kids to come in. These kids haven’t got the chance to play basketball or football. We are getting the chance to teach them teamwork. It is a great bonding experience.”

Schrieber said one of the reasons he got involved is because he has struck up a close friendship with Mike Vogel, one of the special needs athletes that he has known.

“I went and told Mike that I was going to do this and he got all fired up,” Schrieber said. “It put a huge smile on his face. It’s the smallest things that do that. I’m glad that I’m doing it.”

The draw has reached further at Boonsboro.

“We have regular education, honors and future education students participating,” Boonsboro coach Mark Wadel said. “These are students who want to particpate but their school schedules won’t allow them to compete in sports with five-day-a-week practices.”

While it took a long time for Washington County to get these programs started, they are quickly becoming a Godsend.

The athletes are happy and parents are relieved their children are getting all the opportunities that every other child is afforded. Coaches and able-bodied athletes are getting a refreshing look at their sports.

But the schools will be getting a larger benefit.

“This is a way to get different parts of the school to come together,” Tesla said. “If anything comes along and helps create more school spirit, I’m all for it. This is great.”

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