Quinn Lucas started bowling around age 4 because it was something he could do with his family and friends. Born with spina bifida, Lucas uses a wheelchair, and communicates with sign language.
But with the Anne Arundel County Public Schools winter sports season on hold amid the pandemic, Lucas is stuck on the sidelines.
At first, it seemed like the unified bowler, a fourth-year South River student, couldn’t his beloved sport. Then, his coach had an idea. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Lucas logs on to Google Classroom to compete with other Anne Arundel high school bowlers, his friends and teammates, and even coaches in fantasy bowling.
Using the online platform,South River unified bowling coach Mike Toepper created mash-ups of professional bowling clips from YouTube, putting four bowlers on the screen. Participants pick a bowler and, like fantasy football, their scores are tied to how well that bowler performs through 10 frames.
It doesn’t really matter how the pros bowl, Toepper said. Every kid still ends up with a “monster score.” Though some score higher than others, it’s more about engaging with one another and not about winning, even when another school, like Crofton, is involved. The Seahawks are in talks with some other schools, too, to widen the pool before the bowling season ends in mid-February.
“The connection kids get from activities like this, you can’t measure them,” South River athletic director Dave Klingel said. “Being able to provide an alternative for them is definitely worth it.”
Losing unified bowling this year ached Toepper. Last year, South River had to run a lottery for partners when around 100 able-bodied and neurotypical students asked to participate as “partners.” This year, Toepper has 12 members: six student-athletes with disabilities and six partners.
Toepper tried to wrack his brain for anything that he could do to help his remaining players. He could see firsthand how the missing season impacts a unified player. His daughter, Grace, is eager to play unified tennis, bowling and bocce every year. Toepper could see how even the short-lived AACPS-sanctioned practices in the fall gave his daughter a reprieve from the monotony of being in the house every day.
Then it ended, and Grace came back inside, and bowling’s practice sessions never came. Toepper, a former Big Ten champion bowler, thought a lot about bowling, and what was missing right now.
All summer, Toepper watched as professional bowling returned safely amid the pandemic, and he got an idea. He could bring the spirit of bowling back to his kids.
“Everybody cheers for everybody in bowling. We want to see strikes. It doesn’t matter who’s bowling. You want to see a 300 [perfect] game, even if it’s not you, even if the guy beat you with a 300. You feel kind of a part of it,” Toepper said.
Lucas enjoys the fantasy games because he has the chance to be with his friends again, his mother Karen translated in an interview with The Capital. Thinking about it, his mother said, brings a smile to his face.
“The coaches are super enthusiastic,” Karen Lucas translated from her son, “and make it really fun. [Assistant coach Robert Croyle] has great energy. So that’s been a lot of fun this time around.”
Croyle considers working with the unified bowling the most rewarding thing he does, and gives credit to Toepper for finding a way to keep it going during this time.
“You can tell that it’s a high spot in their day, there’s no doubt about that,” Croyle said.
That hour or so meeting the bowlers have virtually gives Croyle, a teacher, a break from the colder structure of online learning.
“This is one healthy time for adults and students to have some level of socialization,” Croyle said. “Kids do real well in school when they’re involved in activities. This is one way to connect with them on a non-requirement type of thing.”
Crofton special education teacher Jennifer Lowe, in her first year coaching the newly-formed Crofton unified bowling team, sees the benefit of having her team of four being able to not only interact with one another, but with bowling. The team meets virtually twice a week to work on service projects and play games, like a Family Feud match with Old Mill. Last week, Crofton reached out and played the fantasy game with South River.
“They’re practicing in our own way, learning how to set up the pins, how to keep score, taking turns and teamwork into building sportsmanship-type skills,” Lowe said.
Crofton freshman Jake Bradley, who has autism, misses going to the bowling alleys to play and see people. He’s set up his own makeshift bowling alley at home, with plastic cups and tennis balls, but it’s still missing that crucial social aspect.
When he joined Crofton’s meet with South River, he loved it.
“I get to see their faces and talk to everyone,” Bradley wrote in an email.
Toepper’s favorite clips to pick from are Professional Bowlers Association “League” games, which have five teams compete.
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“I like the team ones a lot because they’re really cheering each other on, giving each other hints,” Toepper said. “[The kids] get exposed to bowling terminology and exposed to the game in a different way since they can’t be on the lanes.”
The South River coach is intentional in only choosing recent games. He could select games from years ago, with crowds and normal game play.
“They still have to deal with the fact that even these pros are doing the best they can with what sports are right now,” Toepper said.
Usually, Toepper tries to run the fantasy games for 45 minutes. When time expires, his players beg to keep it going.
Karen Lucas feels grateful that her son’s coaches found a way to engage him with his sport again. She knows it’ll feel like it was too short when it’s over.