The BALD EAGLE AREA Unified Bocce Team won the bronze medal at the PIAA Unified Bocce Championships held recently at State College.
Unified pétanque provides an equal playing field for all athletes
STATE COLLEGE — Asked about the importance of winning his bronze medal, Thomas Shaheen didn’t pretend to be too enthusiastic.
“Not as much as it means to win a gold medal,” Shaheen said. “I’ll say that.”
This is the attitude of an accomplished athlete. Shaheen knows what it takes to wear state gold. The bar he sets for himself and his team is exceptionally high. Being part of a dynasty only asks for the best.
Shaheen and his teammates, however, are the winners of an even bigger game: the game of life.
He is part of the Bald Eagle Area Unified Bocce Team which brings together student-athletes with disabilities with those without. BEA has been one of the most successful programs since its inception in 2018-19 and added to its list of accomplishments on Wednesday, March 30, when its blue team finished behind only Mifflin County and Central Columbia in the PIAA Central State Championship. at C3 Sports.
A senior, Shaheen is one of the Eagles unified athletes. He participates in regular education classes at school and is also part of BEA’s life skills program.
“The real reason we played was to try to let people know that not all people are exactly the same, despite the fact that they may look the same, but they should have the same chances,” Shaheen said. “We were trying to show that everyone is equal and everyone deserves a chance to get involved. We can understand people better when we see them on an equal footing.
Tory Shady, Brennan Pressler, Eric Ertwine, Alice Crane, Sara Thompson, Laura Ternent and Elisa Taborska are on Team Blue along with Shaheen. Fay Shaheen, Matthew Crane, Keeleigh Soltis, Maura Cingle, Alex Uhler, Emily Gardner and Claire Homan make up the Bald Eagle Gold Team.
Ternent is a unified partner. She is a junior who also plays volleyball for BEA and joined the pétanque program last year.
“It was something I thought was fun to do because I had gone to petanque matches and seen how fun they were and how everyone got along and had real friendships with each other. with others,” Ternent said. “The most meaningful thing about this season has been being able to see the athletes really having fun in every game and being able to cheer everyone on.
“It means a lot to me to win the bronze medal. Although I wish it was gold, I’m grateful to have won leagues, so we had a chance to compete in states.
The Eagles face off in a league with Bellefonte, State College, Central Mountain and Huntingdon. The teams play each other in the regular season, then held a tournament on Feb. 22 to determine their representative in last week’s national finals.
A school district with a long history of helping students with disabilities gain athletic opportunities — BEA has hosted Special Olympics field hockey finals for more than 15 years — Bald Eagle won the state championship in 2019.
COVID-19 robbed the Eagles of the chance to defend their title, prompting the cancellation of the 2020 season, and last year bocce was replaced by a fitness heptathlon as the nation still struggled to cope with the pandemic.
Erica Milliron, special educator, coaches the Bald Eagle pétanque teams.
“We appreciate that sports are growing in our region and that more schools are adding unified sports to their interscholastic sports options for students. When everyone plays, everyone wins,” Milliron said.
“Our team has had a lot of success in the field, which has helped spread awareness of our program within the school and community, but the enthusiasm and commitment of BEA staff and administration are which helped make it such a success.
“I wanted to participate in this program because as a special education teacher, I believe in the power of inclusion and that everyone has a fair and equal chance, regardless of ability. I wanted to see that integrated into the sport.
Of course, athletes still like to compete. And win.
“Good communication skills, concentration and very good hand-eye coordination make a good pétanque player. Also good goal,” Shaheen said.
“What makes a good team are excellent social skills, good communication skills and teamwork, mutual understanding and empathy.”
Ternent said being part of the bocce program broadened his perception.
“I had ties with people with disabilities before playing pétanque, but I wouldn’t say it was a close tie. I would say now that it’s not just close ties, but some of my best friends,” Ternent said.
“Playing unified bocce has totally changed my life and my perspective on a lot of things. It taught me how to be a good leader and what true friends are like.
Shaheen said he got a lot more out of the program than a few awards and learned the best ways to get the ball rolling.
“Bocce has improved my social skills and as a person and in so many other ways. I could go on and on but you would need a whole other article,” Shaheen said.
“At the end of the day, the best thing that I’ve really improved is my understanding of the world and the people around me.”
Shaheen said he joined the program in the first place simply because he needed something in his life. He definitely found what he was looking for.
“The most meaningful thing was being part of a team or a community. I feel more connected to others in my school. It gave me a deeper and better connection with my teammates. It was just a sport, but it helped me learn about life and be a better person. It’s become so much more than just being part of a sport,” Shaheen said. “And to be honest, I’m still amazed by that.”