BRUNSWICK — Marcy Francoeur couldn’t help but smile.
A Unified bocce match, new to Maine high schools this spring, was in progress Tuesday afternoon between Brunswick and Gray-New Gloucester, and Francoeur loved what she was seeing. There were the athletes competing on the court, their partners congratulating them after each toss, and a gallery of students and adults surrounding the court, applauding with each ball that landed.
And for Francoeur, the Gray-New Gloucester coach, there was the clear sign that Unified sports continue to grow.
“This is definitely a positive step for it,” she said. “It was great, especially this year, just having them play games again. Unified basketball really got the fire burning for more sports to come.”
Bocce is the newest addition to the Unified docket, joining basketball after officially being kickstarted with a match in Kennebunk last Wednesday. Five high schools – Brunswick, Gray-New Gloucester, Kennebunk, Gorham and Scarborough – will be competing in the inaugural season.
Unified sports are offered as co-ed athletic opportunities for students with developmental disabilities by the Maine Principals’ Association in partnership with the Special Olympics. Teams consist of “athletes” (those with disabilities) and “partners,” students without disabilities who assist the athletes during play.
“We’re just happy to get it off the ground,” said principals association assistant executive director Mike Bisson, who oversees Unified sports. “I think what you’ll see is it’s going to grow very quickly once people see it in action.”
There was buzz Tuesday. A crowd of onlookers, including players on other Brunswick High teams who had come over to watch, packed the hill by the Brunswick tennis courts as the Dragons and Patriots began play.
“Bocce has been a big, growing sport in the world of Special Olympics Maine, so we thought what better way to continue to expand and make this more of an interscholastic opportunity?” said Ian Frank, Special Olympics Maine’s director of Unified champion schools. “The main thing is that schools want this (Unified) program year-round, and that’s a goal of ours at Special Olympics. We want activities year-round.”
The process to bring bocce to schools began three years ago, as the principals association and Special Olympics Maine worked to find a second offering in addition to basketball, which was introduced in 2015 and has grown drastically since. The principals association set up Unified track and field in the spring of 2018 and 2019 and Unified volleyball in the fall of 2019, but both fizzled due to low numbers of participating schools.
When Special Olympics of Maine suggested bocce, which it had been offering since 2005, it was an easy fit.
“We wanted something that we could draw some interest to easily,” Bisson said. “The spring is so busy, we need something that is fairly low maintenance and doesn’t need to take up a huge field.”
Bocce’s planned arrival in 2020, however, was canceled because of COVID and Unified sports returned slowly because of Special Olympics’ stricter protocols, with a large number of athletes being in the high-risk group.
“We had interest from about 13 schools prior to losing a year with COVID,” Bisson said.
Unified basketball returned in full this winter, with Frank estimating that 75 to 80 percent of schools that played in 2019-20 resumed their programs. With Unified trending upward again, the time was finally right to introduce something new.
“We thought ‘Hey, if we’re getting back, let’s get back, and we’ll offer a spring season as well,’” Frank said. “Even if that means starting out slow. Five schools, that’s where we are.”
That gave a green light for bocce, which is played at the Unified level by teams of four – two athletes and two partners – throwing a small ball, called a pallino, onto a 12-foot by 60-foot court, and then taking turns to try to toss balls as close to the pallino as possible. On Tuesday, whichever team had the closest throw got a point. The teams played to either 16 points or a 30-minute time limit.
Brunswick junior Aidan Goodwin, who said he had played bocce with his family, was eager to get started.
“I’m very excited to play with my awesome teammates,” he said. “I’m very excited that there’s another sport in the school. It makes a lot of people happy, a lot of students happy, a lot of teachers happy.”
His teammate, senior Brycen Cardali, was happy to have another sport to try.
“I like playing bocce, it’s pretty fun,” he said. “I like to win games and hang out with my friends.”
The Dragons, made up of Goodwin, Cardali, Austin Levesque, Raimundo Nanga and Paul Barnes along with partners Ava Coley and Eva Harvie, played a back-and-forth first game with the Patriots, consisting of Quinn Hill, Mason Cote, Jared Dutil, Leo Anketell and partners Ellie Schlichting, Amber Fortin and Ashleen Perkins. Before the first toss, there was a cheer of “Let’s go Dragons!” from the crowd.
Teams were unsure about the final score of the first game, but in the end it didn’t matter, as the focus was on playing. Unified sports, in the form of a new activity, was generating the same old enthusiasm.
“It’s nice to see that everyone came out to support us for the first game,” Brunswick coach Patrick Hurley said. “It’s a very good way to get more people involved. It’s nice to see that more people are seeing the value of it.”