LOWER POTTSGROVE — No longer the provenance of lawn parties or old Italian men drinking strong coffee from tiny cups, bocce is now a varsity sport in several schools, and a sport with a special twist.
The game hasn’t changed much, although because it is played on hard surfaces instead of grass, the balls are filled with gel to reduce bouncing. It’s still about trying to get larger balls as close as possible to a smaller target ball.
What’s different about these bocce games is the players, who include regular and special education students competing together on the same teams.
Bocce as it is played in Pottsgrove, North Penn, Methacton, Perkiomen Valley, Upper Merion, Upper Perkiomen and Souderton, is part of a “Unified” program offered through the Special Olympics.
The program came to Pottsgrove because of something Steve Anspach, the district’s director of athletics and co-curricular activities, saw at a football game at Souderton High School.
“They had kids out there kicking field goals at halftime and I asked the coach what they were doing. He explained it was a program through the Special Olympics,” Anspach said Tuesday as he watched the Pottsgrove Bocce Falcons take to the court against the North Penn Bocce Knights.
“I wasn’t sure who to call, so I just called Special Olympics down in Washington,” he said.
Soon enough Anspach, who got his start in special education, had lined up support from the Pottsgrove administration and school board and the district had an inclusive “Unified” track team up and running.
“I had wanted bocce originally, but all the Special Olympics had available at the time was track and field, so that’s what we did,” said Anspach. And in May, 2022, Pottsgrove even hosted the Upper Montgomery County Regional Unified Track and Field Competition, which included unified teams with athletes from Daniel Boone, Methacton, North Penn, Perkiomen Valley, Spring-Ford, Souderton and Upper Merion.
“We actually won that tournament,” said Anspach.
Unified track events are long jump, shot put, javelin, and races such as the 100, 400, and 800 meter. There is also a 4 x 100 relay. Student athletes in these races are heated by ability, according to Myra Forrest, a longtime Pottstown educator, former Owen J. Roberts Schools superintendent and is now the education liaison for the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation, which provided financial support for the teams.
Writing in a commentary published by MediaNews Group in June, 2022, Forrest wrote that “Special Olympics also has a pledge that the Unified Team members repeat before competitions: ‘Let me win, and if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ This is a great mantra for all of us to live by.”
The unified team concept has really taken off, according to Special Olympics Pernnsylvania. “SOPA is working with 91 schools in 12 counties, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh to provide IUS programs for Indoor Bocce, Track and Field, and Soccer,” according to the website.
Now, after some delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pottsgrove and several other schools have bocce up and running as well as track and field.
And the athletes, their coaches and their parents couldn’t be happier.
“The kids have a blast,” said April Caffrey, who co-coaches the Pottsgrove team with Colleen Ryan. “They like having the competition and there is constant positivity, constant support.”
“It’s just like any other sport,” added Ryan.
The unified bocce and track teams are treated like any other school team, Anspach explained.
“They take a team picture for the yearbook, they get varsity letters,” he said. “The bocce team in particular is very high visibility because they practice in the halls and the other kids see this and get curious.”
It’s Isaiah Masimore’s first time participating in any high school sport, said his mother, Shondra, who watched Tuesday’s match with her husband, Tony.
“Isaiah’s much more interested in coming to school now,” she said. “School was not always his favorite thing. He’s talking to more people.”
One of the people Isaiah talked to Monday was a reporter, to whom he explained various aspects of the game, including how and why the balls were different than the ones used when bocce is played outside on the grass.
Nico Marchese said he joined the bocce team because he participated in the unified track team as well.
“I like just hanging out with my buddies,” Marchese said.
One of those buddies is Jim Piazza, who also plays for the Pottsgrove football team and said he joined because he had the time and it looked like fun.
“It is fun,” said Megan Neeson, who also manages Pottsgrove’s cross country team. “It’s great to see all the pride we take in our team and how much we’ve improved and become more confident.”
Not only was Tuesday’s competition the first home match at Pottsgrove, it was John Shantz’s first time being a bocce referee. Shantz, who is also the president of the Pottsgrove teacher’s union, said he was tapped because he is in a bocce league.
“I have to say it is really fun,” Shantz said during a break between rounds. “The players really work as a team and they really support each other. It’s great to see.”
“It really is all about inclusion, it’s just the right thing to do,” said Anspach.
Forrest agreed, writing “there is no reason that those who are part of the special education curriculum should be denied this opportunity as well as those students not able to compete at the varsity or junior varsity levels at their respective schools.”