DALLASTOWN — Families and friends on the bleachers at Dallastown Wednesday night dealt with the nerves by pressing their hands together and clenching their teeth and holding their collective breath as the Unified bocce regional championship went down to the wire, and the competitors rolled red and green gel-filled bocce balls as close as they could to the pallina, a smaller yellow ball that served as a target.
"There's drama," said Columbia athletic director Rob Kedney, "every time somebody lets that ball go."
At the high point of the drama, Columbia's Unified team, consisting of a proportional number of athletes (teammates with intellectual disabilities) and partners (teammates without), scored final-frame points to defeat a pair of Dallastown teams, 8-4 in the semifinals and 3-2 in the championship game, to clinch the regional title. It advances the Crimson Tide, along with 14 other regional champions, to the Special Olympics Pennsylvania/PIAA State Championships scheduled for March 18-19 at Hershey's Giant Center.
"It's been a ride," senior captain Courtney McClair said. "It's crazy to see in the last three years how much we've grown."
Karl Heimbach brought Unified bocce to Columbia in 2017 during his time as the Tide's athletic director. While Heimbach took the same position at Boiling Springs the following year, the Unified program continued to take root at Columbia.
"They have grown as a team," said Columbia co-coach Brie Wise, a seventh-grade learning support teacher. "They work together. They communicate. We really want them all to take leadership, and not just one person. Yeah, we have our team captains, but they're all really helping each other when it comes to 'Oh, you should do this.' They run the show."
The show during the regular season featured a trio of interscholastic matches, each featuring a best-of-three-game series. Columbia won at Dallastown Jan. 22 and topped Central York in a Feb. 18 home match before dropping a decision at Boiling Springs Feb. 20.
Columbia's Andre Brown kicks things off for the Crimson Tide at the Unified bocce championships. His roll lands close enough to the pallina to put Columbia "in." pic.twitter.com/VMipOhfm7A— Tim Gross (@TimGrossLNP) February 26, 2020
"I just love how their mission is to make the exact same opportunities that every other sport has," Kedney said after the competition at Columbia. "We do the national anthem. We introduce the players. We have a pregame ceremony. Our band has been great. They've come in to do a little pep band, so they get to have that as well, just like the football team does. Our whole campus has really rallied around these guys, especially after the success they had last year."
That success included a second-place finish at last year's state competition. The school celebrated by arranging a fire and police escort through the town and lining up the student body to applaud throughout the halls.
"It has given our special ed kids notoriety," said Karen Roehm, a co-coach and life skills support teacher at the high school. "They're more known in the hallways and in the lunchroom. There are more high-fives. It's making our kids part of the big population, and part of the bigger population is part of our program."
Columbia's Silas Johnson caps a successful third frame for the Tide. He scores a point here, and Columbia scores 2 to cut the Dallastown lead to 3-2. There are about 15 minutes left in their regional Unified bocce semifinal. pic.twitter.com/8g179tSupt— Tim Gross (@TimGrossLNP) February 26, 2020
The program has also inspired interaction and fostered friendships between special needs students and their peers at other schools. Prior to the match at Columbia, the administration provided a meal of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, as well as a chance to socialize.
"It was nerve-wracking to meet new people," said senior Silas Johnson, "but I'm used to it. That's how I roll."
Since the launch of Columbia's bocce program, schools in Lancaster County have added Unified programs for the track and field season. Last year, six schools sported teams in the spring. Kedney also expects more Lancaster teams to assemble Unified bocce programs before the next winter season.
"It's been neat to be able to answer questions from other ADs about what it's like," he said. "It's been nice to help other schools around us to get on board."