Gateway’s 1st-year unified bocce program providing ‘positive, uplifting’ experience

Sunday, January 29, 2023 | 11:01 AM

Gateway athletic director Don Holl first saw what a unified bocce program was all about while at Seneca Valley, and he felt it would be something to consider at Gateway.

“I thought it was a really cool thing, so we investigated it and spoke to the school board about it before going ahead with plans to bring a program here, just as we would with anything else,” Holl said.

“The board was really supportive, so we went ahead and spoke to the folks at the Special Olympics who coordinate the program at the local and state levels. We applied for a grant and were awarded a grant from the Special Olympics, and that was the genesis of it getting started.”

And Holl said he couldn’t be happier with the way the program has taken off at Gateway with 16 competitors, a mix of general and special education students, having fun and being together for practices and competitions.

“The important thing for us was to provide a positive, uplifting and fun environment for everyone,” Holl said.

“It is so exciting to see these kids have so much fun. The whole concept of the unified program is to have all of them come together and blend their talents, efforts and abilities. This is just the start, and we can’t wait to see how the program will grow.”

Gateway hosted another first-year program, Ligonier Valley, last Wednesday at the Furrie Sports Complex, and the games between the schools were close and competitive.

Players and spectators reacted to each roll with both teams supporting each other while trying to get the victory.

“This is my first time playing bocce,” Gateway team member Marshall Schmidt said.

“I like to win and score points for my team. I’ve made a lot of friends. That’s really good, too.”

Unified bocce is part of the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program which maintains a goal of social inclusion through planned and implemented activities it hopes will promote systems-wide change.

Sports such as bocce and track and field in the spring are at the foundation of this endeavour.

Gateway unified bocce coach Olivia Garbett, a special education teacher in the Gateway School District and also a girls soccer assistant coach, said that while the Gateway team members have excelled in playing the sport this winter, the camaraderie and friendships formed is what really has caught her eye.

“Being one of the girls soccer coaches, Don Holl came to me and asked me if I would be interested in working with the bocce program,” Garbett said.

“That was in the spring, and we really got things rolling over the summer. In the fall, (Special Olympics Western PA UCS Manager) Stephanie (Taylor) and the program did a lot for us to get us set up. The kids have been so excited to play this game and to spend time with each other. And with it being a varsity sport, these kids will be able to receive a varsity letter. Cheerleaders come to matches to support them, and they have fans cheering them on. They get to run out through a banner before their matches. They can become state champions.”

Special Olympics provides the court, the uniforms for the players, and the bocce set for the matches involving more than 50 schools and 89 teams in several counties throughout Western Pennsylvania.

The Three Rivers Region comprises eight divisions, and Gateway, with its two teams, is in the East Division with Fox Chapel, Plum, Riverview, Burrell, Franklin Regional, Ligonier Valley and Norwin.

“Bocce is really big out here,” Taylor said.

“Half or more of the schools have two teams. Every school in Gateway’s division has two teams. Everyone is an equal contributor to their team.”

There will be four different league playoff nights within the Three Rivers Region with Hopewell, Baldwin, Gateway, and Mohawk serving as hosts.

Ten teams will advance to regionals at Geneva College on March 9, and the top two teams from regionals will move on to states at Hershey on March 23.

“It’s wonderful to have all of these students be so excited and to see the program take off at places like Gateway,” Taylor said.

“The goals of these programs are to provide that inclusivity and for everyone to have that high school experience.”

Gators coach Jay Scarcelli said the matches are competitive with friendly and supportive interactions between the teams lifting up the match experiences even more.

“They love to play, but they also love to be with each other and spend time with each other,” Scarcelli said.

“I am just so happy to see what we’ve been able to do in the first year and what the future holds for the program.”

Gateway team members this season also include Lily Lehman, Chris Breegle, Jackie Humenick, Piper Benson, Gracyn Fry, Michelina Estremara, Remy Bose, Jolina Estremara, Patrick Mendreza, Alyssa Fritz, Gavin Dorosiev, Madi Jesih, James Richmond, Megan Marsh, Connor Valentine and Blake Marsh.

“It gets my heart pumping, and I get really excited when I see a good roll,” said Bose, a junior who also is a linebacker on the Gateway football team.

“It takes so much concentration, and there are some really good players. I am glad I decided to join the team. It’s like a family to me.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .


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