A large crowd and packed student section gathered in the Bald Eagle Area High School gym on Thursday, and the explosive cheers and chants had nothing to do with wrestling or basketball.
“B-O-C-C-E” was a chant that rolled through the gym, and it’s also the name of the all-inclusive sport that’s taking over the Centre County athletics scene.
In indoor bocce, an Italian-borne sport, two teams take turns rolling or bouncing bocce balls across a small court to achieve close proximity to the “pallina,” a smaller blue-colored ball that is rolled toward the middle of the court at the beginning of the round. The balls are then counted as “in” or “out” based on their distance to the pallina, and points are totaled accordingly.
Unified bocce is a winter sports program in conjunction with the Special Olympics that allows students with and without special needs to participate in a competitive sport environment that promotes social connectivity, camaraderie and physical activity. Other high school unified sports include basketball, tennis and golf.
“Their peers are cheering them on, everybody’s wishing them luck in the hallway,” BEA unified bocce coach Erica Milliron said. “It improves school culture, it’s a great school atmosphere, we’re so glad we have it.”
Teams are made up of both students with intellectual disabilities, referred to as athletes, and regular-ed students, referred to as partners. There is a minimum of six and a maximum of eight players per team.
Multiple Centre County high schools have adopted unified bocce teams, including Bald Eagle, State College and Bellefonte, as well as Clearfield Area High School in Clearfield County.
The sport has become so popular at BEA in particular that students were split into two separate teams, the Blue and Gold teams, but with no distinction of one over the other.
At the Eagles’ first home match of the season on Thursday, the Gold Team first won 6-1, and the Blue Team won 9-1 against State College.
Even when State College’s team was up during Thursday’s march, each roll garnered loud cheers from the home audience.
“Our students have always been very interactive, and I just think it’s a great way to promote it to the public,” said Doug Dyke, BEA athletic director.
This winter is BEA’s second season of play and there are 16 students participating across the two teams, according to Milliron, who said the students’ passion is what makes it special.
“I think it’s great, they’re engrained right here in the culture of our building,” BEA high school principal John Tobias said. “(The players) take it real seriously.”
Thomas Shaheen, a member of BEA’s Blue Team who’s becoming known for his post-roll dance moves, said he enjoys both the sport and interacting with his teammates, as well as the thrill of being cheered on by his peers.
“It’s a nice space for interaction with teammates,” Shaheen said. “It’s pretty awesome but pretty terrifying. I’m a little nerve-excited.”
On Wednesday, BEA held a pep rally for all its winter sports, and bocce was recognized. Additionally, they held an exhibition match where the other winter sports teams and faculty members got to play a game themselves.
“The point of unified sports is to make your athletes who would have been eligible for Special Olympics just like any other athlete in your school,” Milliron said. “That’s exactly what our kids have become.”
Bocce is an officially PIAA-sponsored winter sport, and state championships are held the same day as basketball state championships at the Giant Center in Hershey. Championships for the region are held the last week of February to determine who is eligible to go.
“If we qualify (for the state championship) we’re definitely going, and I have 16 kids that really want to go,” Miliron said. “We are definitely going.”
All home matches are also live streamed on via the Eagle Ambassadors YouTube page.
“We’re a small school, but we’re definitely a family,” Milliron said.
The BEA unified bocce team’s next match is at Clearfield Area High School at 4 p.m. Feb. 19. For more information about unified bocce and the Special Olympics, visit www.specialolympics.org/our-work/sports/bocce.