Athletes appreciate the unifying spirit of unified sports

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The long tables in the cafeteria are shut together and rolled to the side so that two small courts for playing Bocce can be created. Without a lunch crowd, it feels quiet and empty. But in a few minutes, the silence will be gone. Instead, there will be laughter, joy and the sight of athletes tossing Bocce balls.

The Unified Sports bocce team is practicing for an upcoming match.

At Middletown High School, unified sports provide a place for everybody. A place where students with special needs and those without, participate together in activities and learn from each other.

About eight years ago, the state of Maryland had an idea to create sports that included everyone. Frederick County was one of the first counties in the state that began offering unified sports, starting with unified track.

MHS science teacher Scott Bean has been the coach for unified tennis and unified bocce for eight years. He has also helped coach unified track. Bean said he feels comfortable working with the group and enjoys coaching them.

The unified sport teams are built around a buddy system. “The athletes are the special needs students and their partners are the non-special needs students,” Bean said. This system is especially helpful and important at the away games. The partners not only help the athletes in competition, but stay with them while not competing.

While most of the time things go pretty smoothly, there are times when teachers or coaches need to help the partners. Sometimes the special needs athletes get upset and then it is very important to call the teacher or coach who will know how to react, said MHS junior Hannah Miller, who is a member of the unified sports teams.

Teachers or a coach can help create a more “comfortable situation,” said Bean. Passion and practice help to prevent difficult situations, he added.

“I like the unified sports teams a lot,” said MHS junior Jillian Herman. She joined the unified track team in her freshman year. Since then, she has “built up to all three unified sports”, she said. Herman also said she found a lot of her friends through the teams.

Herman said that for special needs students, “high school is better than middle school.” She added that some students ignored the special needs students during middle school.

“Middle school students were really mean because they didn’t understand,” added Miller. Unfortunately, they did not treat special needs students equally, said miller.

Bean agreed that the unified sports have helped special needs teenagers to integrate better into daily school life and find friends easier. He said that before unified sports were offered, there was often one table where all the special needs students had been sitting, isolated from the other students. “Now, there are mixed tables,” he said.

MHS junior Eric Weimer joined unified sports in his freshman year, playing bocce. Since then, he has been playing tennis in the fall and bocce in the winter.

“Unified sports is amazing,” he said.

“There are more and more special needs students joining,” he added, which helps them integrate better at MHS and to find lots of new friends.

MHS sophomore Carson Levitt agrees with Weimer. Unified sports help special needs students “feel more adjusted in school,” he said.

Last year, MHS senior Brigitte King joined the unified tennis team. “Coach Bean invited me to join,” she said. King likes the team because she has met a lot of friends.

“It’s pretty good,” she said.

MHS sophomore Erin Cowan enjoys the experience and likes the coach. Unified sports are a “great way to meet awesome people,” she said.