Unified Sports

Jordan Beck, a student at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, bowls a bocce ball during practice. (Capital News Service photo by Molly Geary / March 30, 2014)

Chris Patterson stood between two bocce courts during practice at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, shouting encouragement to his teammates.

"Bend your knees!" the junior yelled to one player whose throw fell too short.

Patterson is a team captain of Broadneck's unified bocce team. Six years ago, he wouldn't even have been able to play.

Patterson is one of thousands of disabled students across Maryland who are playing high school sports through unified or allied sports teams, which are composed of both students with disabilities and those without.

The unified sports scene in Maryland has grown sharply in recent years, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, the number of people on unified sports teams in Maryland more than doubled, jumping from 2,338 to 5,784. The growth was especially strong for female athletes on unified sports teams, who grew from 827 in 2011-2012 to 2,739 in 2012-2013

The federation data counts the number of people participating in each sport, meaning a single person who plays two sports would be counted twice.

Growth has been driven largely by the addition of new unified and allied programs, such as basketball, tennis and track, to Maryland high schools.

In 2008, the Maryland Fitness and Athletic Equity Act for Students with Disabilities was passed, ensuring students with disabilities are provided equal opportunities to participate in athletic activities in state schools.

Greg Baron, in his fourth season coaching the unified bocce team at Broadneck, has seen the growth firsthand. He said he was overwhelmed by the number of students who came out for the team this year.

"This is the most we've ever had," he said of the more than 40 students assembled at practice. "It's almost unmanageable. But it's a great thing that it's become so popular."

Maryland is one of the leading states in the country for unified and allied sports teams, with several county school systems having leagues for sports such as bocce, softball, bowling and tennis. Many schools, including Broadneck, have one unified team per season, meaning a disabled athlete could play sports the entire school year should he or she choose.

The Broadneck unified bocce team has gone to the Division I state championship three years in a row, which Baron figures is one of the reasons the sport has become so popular at the school.

"Going to state championships was really impressive, seeing how many counties in the state were involved. … It was something to see," he said.

Patterson, who is also a member of the unified bowling team, has embraced his role as a team captain. He spent much of the team's practice on a recent weekday encouraging teammates and overseeing the two bocce courts.

"It's been really fun," Patterson said of his experience with unified sports at the school. He said he's made a lot of friends through the team.

Unified sports also aim to integrate disabled students with nondisabled students in a way that might not normally occur. Baron said the nondisabled players on his team have always been very supportive.

"We have really great kids at this school, always very helpful with our kids with disabilities; always willing to help out," said Baron, who also coaches unified tennis at Broadneck.

Baron said he's unsure of how much unified sports in Maryland will expand — especially as teams like his bocce one continue to have more and more students wanting to play — but he's hoping to see the program continue to grow.

"I don't know what the plans are. But I would definitely like to see that," he said.