Shaler Area unified bocce team hopes to build off last year's success -

Shaler Area unified bocce team hopes to build off last year’s success

Thursday, January 30, 2020 | 12:01 AM

The Shaler Area unified bocce team kicked off the season with its first home game Feb. 5 against Fox Chapel Area High School.

With the sport in its third year at Shaler Area, the team has expanded from eight to 16 players playing on two courts.

Assistant Coach Christin Pintar, a speech pathologist for the district, said that the team’s participation in last year’s Special Olympics Interscholastic Unified Bocce State Championship in Hershey has fostered the team’s growth.

“I think that experience is making us grow faster and have more exposure. It just really is unbelievable to me how many doors it has opened to our team and the community’s response to our team has been so overwhelming and kind and generous,” she said.

Head coach Gina Chmielewski and assistant coach James Bernick join Pintar in leading the team.

“This type of sport is selected so that everyone has an equal contribution,” Pintar said. “If you have a special need or are a typical peer, everybody competes equally on the team. The people who have a special need are called athletes and then the typical peers are called partners.”

In unified bocce, players aim to roll bocce balls closest to a target ball called a palina. Officials may make modifications, Pintar said, if a player is in a wheelchair and needs a ramp for rolling bocce balls. Likewise, students with visual impairments may have their partners stand by the palina and speak to aid with the target location.

The Special Olympics wants coaches to maintain a distance from athletes during games this year, Pintar said.

“We are really working on the partnership between athlete and partner so that they can boost each other and cheer each other and help each other through the matches, and we’re really working on those relationships to make them beneficial out on the bocce court as well as throughout the school.”

Since early December, the team has met for semiweekly practices.

The Shaler Area Alumni Association assisted with making the team’s growth possible. Association President Mark Becker secured the approximately $600 donation of a second bocce court and ball set from class of 1977 alumni Mike and Leanne Mihelic. Additionally, more than 30 people donated through the association’s Facebook page to fund team apparel. Alumnae Kristen Mary and Adeline Kubicsek donated design services for team logos.

“When we go places, our team is going to look so professional and put together because of the generous donations of people who gave us the money for the hoodies and then also designed these awesome logos that we’ll be able to use into the future,” Pintar said.

Due to the Facebook campaign’s success, the association also raised enough funds to purchase a bocce court and ball set for use during middle school physical education courses.

“This is a great example of school/alumni partnership. We’re very proud that our alumni recognize the importance and impact of their time at Shaler Area and want to support today’s student and teacher experience,” Becker said.

Shaler Area’s season last year was 2-1 before the team won four matches in the postseason at the Allegheny County Unified Indoor Bocce Championships, sending them to states.

“We couldn’t do anything wrong. It was just unbelievable. I mean, there were some close matches with our opponents, but it just felt like we were a snowball and it just kept getting bigger and bigger until we had won,” Pintar recalled.

This year, Pintar and the other coaches hope to coordinate around five social outings for teammates to improve their relationships off the court. Plans include attending school sporting events and theater productions.

“We want to take advantage of going to school activities for students that maybe wouldn’t normally go to them,” Pintar said.