LA PLATA, Md. – Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) high school students recently gathered on a Capital Clubhouse ice rink to face off. There was no ice, no sticks or pucks. Instead, the floor space was converted into three 60-feet-long courts for the 2022 Interscholastic Unified Sports Indoor Bocce District 8 Tournament. Athletes and partners took turns studying the courts, planning their next move. Then, gently and exhibiting intense concentration, they rolled a ball underhand on the court in hopes of getting closer to the pallino (a smaller ball acting as a target) than their opponents.
Junior Kyle Messick, an athlete on Westlake High School’s team, joined the team with his sister, Noelle, a sophomore. He summed up bocce succinctly. “You practice. You practice how to throw the ball, not throw it. You roll the ball, but it can’t roll too long.” That’s a pretty accurate description of how bocce is played, the game birthed during the heyday of the Roman Empire and developed into its current form in Italy.
Unified teams from La Plata, Maurice J. McDonough, North Point, Thomas Stone and Westlake high schools — the latter two creating a blended team — competed in the 2022 Interscholastic Indoor Bocce District 8 Tournament Feb. 1. Unified Sports is a program of Special Olympics that promotes social inclusion through shared training and competition for people with and without intellectual disabilities.
The competition is fun, but students get more out of the activity than wins. Danny Mears, a McDonough senior has been active in Unified sports for four years. He said his favorite thing about it is the relationships it fosters. “I think it’s the unlikely friendships you make with the athletes,” he said. “It’s a great experience and it’s fun.”
At the recent tournament, the nine CCPS teams were divided into three divisions — Red, White and Blue. School teams are broken up into groups designated by a school color. North Point has a black team and a red team; La Plata has two teams, one is blue, the other white; McDonough’s four teams are designated as the black, white, orange and purple teams while Westlake and Stone are known by the school names — Westlake/Stone.
McDonough Black won the Red Division tournament; North Point Red took the White Division title and McDonough White was first place in the Blue Division. In past years, there would be a state competition, but for 2022 the contest was canceled due to COVID-19 precautions.
Unified teams also compete in tennis in the fall and track and field in the spring. Some students take part in all three sports, but many pick and choose what they’re interested in, Melyssa Cooke, special education specialist, said.
Nehemiah Strawberry, a senior at North Point, found out about Unified through tennis. A member of the North Point tennis team, Strawberry was asked by his coach if he was interested in being part of Unified sports. Then a sophomore, Strawberry remembers thinking, “I’ll just try it.” He has taken part ever since and is also the president of North Point’s Best Buddies Club. “Unified truly opens your eyes,” he said. “It has helped me build friendships.”
Skyler Smith, a junior at La Plata, agreed and added that it she likes the team building aspect of Unified Sports. “Everyone is very accepting, and everyone is included.”