It had been more than 10 years since Christine Wenchel was a soccer and softball coach at Laurel High School.
And it was partly an ethnic connection that caused her to return to a leadership role in athletics during the 2010-11 academic year as coach of the school's bocce team, which is in its third season.
Bocce is a lot like lawn bowling, she explains, and is very popular in Italy and Croatia and other eastern European countries. In the past there has been a bocce league in the Little Italy neighborhood in Baltimore.
"Bocce is Italian and I am Italian. It is a lot of fun. This gave me an opportunity to get back" to coaching, said Wenchel, the administrative assistant to Laurel High principal Dwayne Jones.
Wenchel has worked at Laurel High for about 15 years and was the head junior varsity softball coach and a varsity assistant in girls soccer under long-time head coach Terry Parfitt.
She said in boccee, each team has four balls and a game includes 10 frames. The first team to 16 points, or the team with the most points after 45 minutes, is declared the winner, she said.
The court is 60 feet long by 12 feet wide and each team uses up to eight players, Wenchel said.
The bocce team at Laurel, like others in Prince George's County, is part of the Unified sports program. The team includes special education students and students who are not special education and are called "unifed partners." The special education students are athletes through the Special Olympics program, and Laurel High also has teams with Special Olympics athletes in softball and track.
Unified sports programs began in public high schools after the passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Law in 2008. That legislation ensured that physical education and school athletic opportunities would be offered to school students with disabilities.
At Laurel, Wenchel is not only having fun but her bocce team is a winner.
Laurel won its division (gold) Feb. 12 when Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD) hosted the third annual Unified Indoor Bocce State High School Invitational at the University of Maryland Reckford Armory Gymnasium in College Park. There were several schools from Prince George's County as well as from Baltimore city and Charles and Montgomery counties.
"It felt good," Laurel junior Crystal Ramos, a Special Olympics athlete, said of the win at College Park. "We practice and we try hard."
Ramos found out about bocce from Laurel High teachers and plans to run track again this spring. She does mostly running events and took part in track as a freshman but not as a sophomore.
There are seven players on the Laurel bocce roster and six were on hand for the event at College Park. The team is made up of two seniors, four juniors and one sophomore. Students are required to have a grade-point average of at least 2.0 to be eligible to play for Laurel High.
Indoor bocce in Maryland now includes more than 100 teams from eight counties and 68 high schools, according to a statement from Nate Garland, SOMD's chief program officer. Another Special Olympics bocce event was held Feb. 14 at Hagerstown Community College in Western Maryland, where 90 teams were expected to compete.
"Students get a lot out of these experiences and it goes a long way in educating students to disability awareness, creating social inclusion and betters whole school culture," Garland said in the statement.