As volunteers from the University of Maryland finished disassembling and packing the polyvinyl chloride pipe that lined the floors of the Reckord Armory to form bocce courts, Henry A. Wise High School unified bocce coach Bryan Montgomery took out his phone to call the bus driver.
It was time to take his three-time gold medal championship team home following a long Tuesday of competition at the Maryland Unified Bocce State Championships on the College Park campus.
“Just now, when I was trying to call the bus driver, my hand was still shaking because I was nervous and excited,” Montgomery said. “It’s one of those gentleman’s games. It’s not a fast-paced game like traditional sports, but in those close moments your heart is racing.”
Montgomery’s team won the Division 5 gold medal with an 8-6 victory against DuVal in the championship match as a plethora of unified teams from across the state competed in seven divisions. Of the seven divisions, four Prince George’s County teams took home gold medals: Wise, Potomac (Division 3), DuVal (Division 4) and Laurel (Division 6). LaPlata (Division 1), Bethesda Chevy-Chase (Division 2) and Quince Orchard (Division 7) rounded out the group of the day’s gold medal winners. But throughout Prince George’s County, teams earned medals and ribbons from schools like Bladensburg (fourth), Eleanor Roosevelt (third), Friendly (fourth), Largo (third), two-time county champion Northwestern (third) and Parkdale (fourth).
Anthony Cockrell, Alex Howard, Shanita Swann and Cory Taylor all were key parts of Wise’s winning team as the gold medal match was decided by two points.
“This is my first year doing it and it’s my first time having a gold medal in anything, so I’m feeling pretty special right now,” Cockrell said. “I started out kind of rough. It was my first time playing and it really does take a lot of strategy.”
As the sun’s light filtered through the large, ornamental windows in the spacious gymnasium, screams of joy and clapping reverberated off the walls as teams scored points in any one of the 14 matches occurring simultaneously. The teams competed in 30-minute games, which involved tossing four weighted balls at a smaller yellow ball called a pallino. Throughout the afternoon, teams were given their ribbons or medals on a stage at center court with John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare playing over the loudspeakers.
Potomac’s two-time gold medal winning team struck numerous poses on the awards podium before making their way out of the gym.
“We have a great team, outstanding friend and parent support, outstanding staff support and I’m just fortunate to be given this opportunity,” said first-year Potomac coach Blair Smoak. “It’s an outstanding experience to see so many young people out here.”
Chris Ward, one of Smoak’s expert bocce ballers, agreed.
“I just feel happy that we won,” he said. “I’m just proud of my team. I had to have faith for all my players and it feels great.”
Unified bocce began in Maryland as a result of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) Fitness and Athletic Equity Act of 2008 and the state has long been at the forefront of the nation’s programs for school systems that offer equal opportunities for those with disabilities. Last month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights clarified existing legal obligations for schools nationwide to provide equal access to extracurricular athletic activities to students with disabilities. In Prince George’s County, while other unified sports are offered, bocce seems to have become a true favorite among all athletes and coaches.
“[Bocce] is an appropriate sport selection for all people of different abilities and it has been a great tool to gain momentum and popularity with the sport,” said Melissa Kelly, the senior director of Interscholastic Unified Sports. “There’s a competitive drive that goes along with mainstream interscholastic sports that we feel at our tournaments. We’re very pleased with the growth and popularity.”
Since unified bocce began, county coaches have noticed an increase in participation every year since. They’ve also noticed how beneficial the sport can be to all involved.
“At first, I didn’t know what bocce was,” said Wise’s Howard. “I came to tryouts and played the game, but I didn’t know it was a special needs sport. It made me more mature. Now, I have much more respect and realize that everybody’s the same. This sport taught me more than how to just strategize. It taught me how to work with people.”
As the athletes filed out of the gym on Tuesday following a long day of competition, many proudly displayed their newly-acquired medals around their necks. Some will wear them to school, others will tuck them away in their dresser drawers or hang them on the mantle.
“It feels really, really good,” Laurel’s Maurice Curry said with a smile. “Especially because Laurel doesn’t win much.”