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Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2020:02:02 04:50:47

Shelby Soboleski, left, is congratulated by teammates Norah Carey and Matthew Tokash.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2020:02:02 04:28:12

Fans applaud for both teams, Carbondale Area and Abington Heights, during the unified sports team’s bocce ball meet at Abington Heights High School.

S. ABINGTON TWP. — For the first year, the Abington Heights High School has a unified bocce ball league in which students with and without disabilities come together as a team to compete against other schools and cheer each other on.

Casey Beichler, unified bocce coach, explained how Unified Bocce got its start in the school district.

“The unified bocce program was started due to having two years of a successful unified track and field team and unified club. The Abington Heights High School Unified programs were recognized by the Special Olympics Unified Sports Programs as being successful, and we were able to add the additional sport of unified bocce.”

Beichler also coaches unified track and field, is advisor of the Unified Club and is a high school life skills teacher.

The bocce ball team has played against Wallenpaupack and Carbondale and will play for the unified bocce championship Monday, Feb. 24 at Carbondale Area High School.

Around 300 people come out to see the bocce team play.

A team must have a minimum of three students who have an intellectual disability, developmental disability or cognitive delay and a minimum of three players without a disability. There are two teams of eight players each.

“I joined because I think it’s a great sport,” said Matthew Tokash, a freshman. “I love that I get to be on a team with my friends, and I can’t wait for Unified track to start also.”

Ally Fink, a junior, explained why she likes to play Bocce:

“I wanted to join the school’s unified bocce ball team because I love being in our club and hanging out with all of the team members. It’s such a fun and loving environment, that I look forward to whether its practice or meets. It’s so important in our community and beyond that we allow everyone to be included. Hopefully unified bocce will grow in our area and other schools will develop new teams.”

“The students are responsible for setting up the indoor bocce court. During the meets, students help each other strategize and cheer each other on,” said Beichler.

Kelly Carey said his daughter, Norah Carey, who has Down syndrome, loves to play bocce. He added the 10th grader enjoys being included with her sister, Brynn Carey, a freshman, and her other teammates.

His wife, Krista Carey is a parent-volunteer assistant coach.

“Bocce allows Norah to be part of the school community and gives her an opportunity to create leadership with all sorts of folks in the school. We are thrilled our daughters are able to play a high school sport together. We are very grateful to both Abington Heights and Unified Special Olympics of PA for making this happen. We are also extremely proud of the student body that comes out to cheer the athletes.”

“This allows the student an opportunity to participate in athletics,” said Randy Hanyon director of athletics, Abington Heights School District. “It allows the student to come out and work through the experience and then see the pure joy and excitement of the student. It is not about winning or losing, but seeing that enjoyment and so much good that comes from that experience.”

‘The unified bocce program promotes whole-school inclusion and allows students with and without disabilities to work as a team,’ said Beichler. “Unified sports unites students of all abilities and allows students to form meaningful relationships with the team and school community. The students love competing because they are able to be part of the school community.”