Bocce provides team sports experience to Hampton students with disabilities

Saturday, January 15, 2022 | 11:01 AM

There is something special and unifying about the Hampton High School bocce team.

The club offers students with intellectual or physical disabilities the opportunity to experience the camaraderie and competitiveness afforded by team sports through the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Unified Sports program.

“The best part is seeing these kids be able to do something that they might not have been able to do if it wasn’t available to them,” Hampton second-year coach Addie Devlin said.

“Even teaching them teamwork and teaching them things that you think come to people naturally, seeing them get to experience that is just amazing. If it wasn’t for this, they might have never learned those qualities.”

The 16-person Hampton roster includes 10 athletes with disabilities along with six partners, who are without disabilities and combine with the athletes in two-person groups in a sort of “buddy system.”

The club, formed about five years ago, will play four matches this season, including the Jan. 10 opener that was at Deer Lakes.

Affiliated with Special Olympics Pennsylvania, bocce is offered at roughly 20 high schools around Western Pennsylvania. The Western Pa. Unified Bocce Championships will be held in March, where Franklin Regional will try to defend its title.

Similar to lawn bowling, bocce is played inside a 12-foot by 60-foot pit. The goal is to roll rubber, tennis-ball sized balls as close as possible to the pallino, a smaller ball that is rolled out to start the match.

Senior Sydney Loebig, who joined the club four years ago after a friend told her about it, was named captain for the season opener after winning a preseason closet-ball competition.

“I like throwing the ball to the pallino,” she said after practice in early January. “It’s fun and it’s easy.”

Other athletes on the bocce team are Molly Bernett, Dominic Johanson, Aidan Kimmell, Morgan Lowther, Adanna Smith, Liam Wallace, Lilly Beth Kuhn, Meg Lavelle and Ryan Winter.

“Throwing at the pallino is very exciting,” Winter said. “I hit the pallino.”

Sophomore Nicole Lichtenfels is a partner on the team. She joined along with a friend last season, which was limited to only two matches because of the pandemic. She knew nothing about the game when she signed up but quickly grew comfortable with it.

“I decided to join … and I’m very happy that I did,” Lichtenfels said. “After a few matches, that’s whenever I started learning how to play. But it’s very fun and it’s very easy to learn.

“It’s a very fun way to get to know people, and it’s one of the things I look forward to during my week.”

Joining Lichtenfels as partners on the team are Lucy Modlin, Marisa Curry, Laynie Loebig, Liana Suski and Abi Green.

“I feel like it’s something that everyone should do,” said Modlin, a junior. “It’s really fun and inclusive. It’s always a good time.”

Each Monday during the winter, the team practices inside the high school cafeteria, building a bocce pit using interlocking 5-foot sections of PVC pipe.

For many of the athletes, bocce is their only interaction with organized sports. Loebig is a cheerleader and Bernett swims, Devlin said, but for the others, bocce is their lone sporting activity.

“A lot of these kids don’t really have the motivation to get out there and try new sports,” Devlin said.

“This just gives them an opportunity because they see all of their friends doing it and all of their classmates doing it and talk it about during school. So they just jump right into it.”

The team will also play at Feb. 2 at Franklin Regional and Feb. 17 against visiting Norwin before hosting senior night on Feb. 22 against Shaler in the regular-season finale.

Lichtenfels said the team’s win-loss record is secondary to the other benefits of the club.

“It’s not much of a big deal,” she said.

“It’s very fun on the bus ride home, regardless of if we win or lose, we all experienced it together.”


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