The marching band, dance team, cheerleaders and revved-up athletes at Covington High School’s stadium Friday morning were brimming with the energetic vibe of any high school sporting event. Students joked with friends, took selfies and waited eagerly for the competition to begin.
But the teams themselves and the game they were there to play represented something brand-new: the first High School Unified Bocce Games.
Hosted by the St. Tammany Parish school system’s Adapted Physical Education Department, the event gave students with and without disabilities a chance to play — and compete — together in a lawn bowling game that is similar in some ways to horseshoes.
The event fits into efforts to make school more inclusive for special-education students, said Sharon Hosch, supervisor of special education for the system. St. Tammany has 17 adaptive physical education teachers who provide services to 650 students, beginning at age 3.
Friday’s competition drew 144 student participants from the four high schools in western St. Tammany: Mandeville High, Covington High, Lakeshore and Fontainebleau.
An event for the high schools in eastern St. Tammany had to be canceled earlier in the week because of severe weather. But that, too, is part of outdoor high school sporting events, Hosch pointed out.
Student volunteers have long played an active role in Special Olympics. The host school provides its band, cheerleaders and other students to encourage the athletes for that event, which is held in the spring. But for the Unified Bocce Games, student volunteers aren’t only on the sidelines; they participate in a sporting event with their special-education counterparts.
Some high schools have buddy clubs that foster friendships between students who have disabilities and those who don’t. Those organizations provided some of the teammates for Friday’s event, Hosch said. Others simply volunteered.
That was the case with Ireyan Richardson, a Covington High senior who was waiting on the sidelines with her teammate, Isaac Fairley, also a senior. Richardson said she has been practicing with Fairley during fifth period, when he has PE and she has lunch.
Bocce was chosen in part because it’s a game that students can play outside of school, said Ashley Marciante, an adapted physical education coordinator. Bocce can be played by people of all ages and abilities, she said.
It’s also more likely to be familiar to students in adaptive PE, who have been practicing all semester to get ready for the event. Their teammates might have played bocce in their own physical education classes, but it might be new to some of them, Hosch said.
That was case for Richardson and Rainey Saune, a Covington High junior. Both girls credited their teammates who take adaptive physical education with teaching them the game. “They explained it better than the coach,’’ Richardson said.
Some students, like Fairley, used regular bocce balls. He deftly rolled the heavy ball toward a smaller white ball — the target — with the goal of getting closest, earning his team a first-round victory.
But nearby, students who couldn’t hold the heavy bocce ball were still able to play. The equipment was adapted to use rubber balls they could grip and place in a metal shoot that’s normally used for bowling.
The competitors got more out of the game than just the chance to play outdoors on a sun-drenched autumn day. They also forged friendships. Richardson teased Fairley about the fun they’ve had dancing, singing and joking around, eliciting a shy smile from her friend.
Saune said running into her teammate, Dione Coleman, in the halls of Covington High always makes her happy. “He’s my go-to person when you need a smile,’’ she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.