ROCKVILLE – Montgomery Blair High School can’t say much for its football team, which finished the year 0-10. But when it comes to the under-the-radar sport of bocce, the Silver Spring school can hold its own.
The team won last year’s regional state championship and, this year, took home Montgomery County’s bocce trophy for the second year in a row.
“We have a couple kids, really good at rolling a bocce,” said Blair coach Jon Haigh. “But the main goal of the sport is to get special needs students working with non-special needs students.”
This is the first full season that indoor bocce is being played in Maryland high schools. A growing number of schools have introduced the sport because it allows them to team-up students with other students who have physical and cognitive disabilities.
Video by Tim Ebner/Capital News Service
Montgomery County doubled the size of its bocce league this year, adding 13 new teams.
“This is my first season, and it’s been fun. I’ve finally found a sport that I like,” said Christian Byrd, a senior at Blair.
Byrd uses a motorized wheelchair and plays on a team with 10 other Blair students. The team includes some students competing for the first time at a varsity level and others with disabilities.
Each of Blair’s 11 team members will receive a varsity letter in the sport, Haigh said, a first for many of the players.
Bocce is commonly played at parks and the beach, a social activity popular with 20-somethings and senior citizens — and now, high school students.
Montgomery Blair was one of 32 teams that participated at one of two state regional championships held this week. Despite winning the championship last year, Blair took eighth place this time.
The post-season tournament was hosted by Special Olympics Maryland for the second consecutive year.
“This is the March Madness of bocce ball,” said Mike Bovino, chief strategic development officer for Special Olympics Maryland.
Ned Sparks, executive director of Maryland’s high school athletic association,the MPSSAA, said that approximately 9,000 disabled and special needs students play interscholastic sports in Maryland. Bocce is helping to boost that number.
“Special Olympics really is the driving force behind the rapid growth of the program,” he said.
In 2008, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law requiring schools to offer at least one varsity sport per season for disabled students. The law took full effect last year.
“The goal is to get 50-50 participation,” said William “Duke” Beattie, Montgomery County Public School’s athletic director. “We want to enhance participation among students with disabilities, but also attract students who have never played a sport before.”
In Frederick County, three sports accommodate disabled students: Indoor bocce in the winter, track and field in the spring and tennis in the fall.
Many counties, including Frederick, draw on Special Olympics for funding and because the organization fosters inclusion, said Kevin Kendro, the athletic director for Frederick County Public Schools.
“Without a doubt, we see students extend their relationships to hallways and in the cafeteria. It’s developed and fostered through practice and competition,” he said.
The regional state championship in Rockville brought together divisions from seven school districts. More teams competed on Friday at a second regional state championship in Hagerstown.
In total, 63 high schools from nine school districts were represented at the two tournaments. Four division winners at each tournament are awarded championship medals.
Doug Remer is a special education teacher at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring and has coached baseball for several years. This year he introduced students to bocce.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he said. He tells his players to keep an eye on the ball.
Instead of a baseball, students aim for the pallino, a small, yellow rubber ball at the opposite end of the court.
To win, teams must roll their four bocce balls closer to the pallino than the other team. Teams are awarded a point for each ball closest to the little yellow ball.
Springbrook was knocked out early in this year’s tournament. Teams from Prince George’s County — Largo and Wise High School — and Frederick County — Tuscarora and Urbana High School — took home first place medals in their divisions.
“The fans get into it too. But the one thing I’ve noticed is the sportsmanship. This sport has better sportsmanship than any other I’ve seen,” Haigh said.
And even though the tournament can be tough competition, filled with tense moments and strategy, players compete to have fun, said Edlawit Gebre, a senior on Blair’s team.
“We won last year, and it was sort of like an accident,” she said. “We came out here, and said ‘let’s just have fun,’ and we ended up winning the whole thing.”