HERSHEY, Pa. — Watching any sport at the state championship level can give any student-athlete an idea of what they still need to practice to reach that plateau, but seeing Unified Bocce teaches lessons that won't only make you better at the sport, but better at life.
The PIAA and Special Olympics - Pennsylvania gathered at the Giant Center in Hershey on Thursday morning for the Unified Bocce State Championship. The season started with over 200 bocce teams throughout the Commonwealth.
As of Thursday, only eight were left standing, including Greencastle-Antrim and Susquenita.
"It's fantastic to see all eight of these teams come here today. They're so well prepared. We love to see the teamwork from the students, with or without disabilities. It's exciting and thrilling and we just love seeing the sportsmanship, the comradery, and the friendships that emerge from this program," said Special Olympics Pennsylvania Senior Advisor Mike Bovino.
PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi was on hand to help with the opening ceremony and then it was time to play bocce.
Four courts filled the Giant Center floor, as a heavy contingent of Susquenita fans were on hand to cheer on the Blackhawks with each roll, but fans came from far and wide.
"We have a school from Saint Marys, for example, that had a bus that left at 4:30 in the morning to be here to cheer on their teammates. If you're a student-athlete and you're playing bocce, to have that support from your friends, teachers, and parents in the stands, there's nothing like it," added Bovino.
Saint Marys didn't make the long drive back to Elk County empty-handed as the Dutchmen were able to win the state title.
Greencastle-Antrim had a pair of rallies in their first two games, including erasing a 5-1 deficit in the state semifinals after their coach brought up the fact that they'd be making a stop at Chick-Fil-A on the way home. The Blue Devils gave it their all and finished second in the state.
The Blackhawks were able to take sixth.
There were scores posted throughout the morning, but when asked what they'd remember most, none of the student-athletes mentioned anything about the wins and losses.
They all reflected on the friendships gained and how much they've all grown throughout the season.
"Unified sports transform school culture and school climate. When students play together, they get to see each other for their unique talents, and get to experience all that," said Bovino. "We're all about trying to promote the values of inclusion, respect, and understanding. Unified sports are a fantastic facilitator for social inclusion and reinforcing those values."