B-A bocce players head off to states

School’s Special Olympics Unified team competing in Hershey today

Members of the Bellwood-Antis High School Special Olympics Unified bocce team will be traveling to Hershey to compete in the state championships today. The team, a mixture of Special Olympics-eligible athletes and students without an intellectual disability, have been practicing since November. Courtesy photo

BELLWOOD ­­– Tyler Long has cheered on other Bellwood-Antis High School teams and played in the school’s marching band, but never got the chance to play on a school team.

But that’s changed for Long and other special needs students with the school’s new Special Olympics Unified Bocce team. The players have done so well that they’re headed to Hershey today for the state championships. If they win there, they go to the state finals Thursday.

“Being a part of the bocce team really helps him get out of his shell and gets him that ‘team experience,”’ said Tyler’s aunt, Katie Grager, who is Tyler’s caregiver. “I know Tyler is really excited about going to Hershey and I am so excited for him that he gets to experience this. The team is a wonderful group of student athletes and they really get along and seem to enjoy themselves out there on the court.”

The idea for the school’s bocce team came from school leaders. Each year, Principal Richard Schreier and Athletic Director Charlie Burch, along with members of the school’s Key Club, participate in the Special Olympics fundraiser at Canoe Creek State Park known as the “Polar Plunge,” school special education teacher Molly Seese said.

This year after the event, a Special Olympics representative asked B-A school officials if they’d like to form a Special Olympics Unified Bocce team. Bocce is an Italian lawn bowling game in which the basic idea is to roll one ball closest to a target ball, according to the Special Olympics website.

The “unified” concept means that the school’s bocce team is a “mixture of Special Olympics-eligible athletes and students without an intellectual disability,” Seese said. She and another B-A special education teacher, Brandon Stewart, have coached the B-A bocce team twice a week since November.

“Our students have been practicing so hard and have really done a nice job this season,” Seese said. “I think the team is going to do a great job in Hershey, but the main goal is for them to have fun. Some of them are nervous, but they are all super excited to go to Hershey.”

To get to Hershey, Bell­wood-Antis competed with Hollidaysburg Area High School and Central High School, which are the only other school districts in Blair County that have participated in the Special Olympics Unified Bocce program, Seese said. The three schools competed in the recent Blair County Bocce Championships in Hollidaysburg, all going in with a record of one loss and one win.

The championship tournament went into overtime when all of the teams finished with two wins and two losses. Central won the overtime and clinched the county championship, Seese said.

However, due to conflicts, neither Central nor Hollidaysburg were able to attend state matches, which according to the rules, meant that B-A automatically advanced to the state playoffs.

A dozen unified bocce teams compete today in the playoffs in Hershey and the top eight winning teams that qualify will advance to the state championship game Thursday.

“I believe this was very unifying for the students, school district and community,” Seese said. “It has also been such a positive experience for all of the students involved. This has given them an opportunity to have something to call their own, as well as have the opportunity to do something different outside of school with other students that they might not necessarily socialize with.”

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