Port bocce sign

A poster outside the Port Allegany High School library shows support for the school’s newest sport, with the Gator bocce team slated to host Bradford on Feb. 21 at 4 p.m. in the PAHS gym.

While the traditional high school winter sports have wrapped up their regular-season slates, a brand-new program at Port Allegany High School is looking forward to its first home match this week, when the bocce team takes on Bradford at 4 p.m. on Feb. 21 in the PAHS gym.

Port is one of three area schools to establish a team, along with Bradford and Oswayo Valley, as part of the Special Olympics Interscholastic Unified Sports program. With the sport already popular downstate, Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA) is trying to build interest throughout the state. The three local schools will compete for the league championship at OV on Feb. 25, with SOPA hosting a state championship tournament in conjunction with the PIAA basketball championships in Hershey in March.

“We are kind of spearheading it up here,” Port coach Justin Osani said of the trio of local schools. “It’s all funded through Special Olympics, but we also had an anonymous donor give us some money so that we could buy another set of balls and another court, which was pretty cool. It shows how much the community is willing to accept something like this, which is really neat. We had so many students that wanted to play, it was difficult to practice. Only so many people can play a frame.”

Port has two squads, each one with three Special Olympic athletes partnering with the same number of regular-education students. Hence, the ‘Unified’ moniker.

“The main push of the program is to promote unity and inclusion, to bring everybody together into a sport that can be played by pretty much anybody of any walk of life, any disability, anything. Anybody can play bocce ball,” Osani said. “It’s very fun, and the other thing that’s very cool about it, it’s very competitive, very strategic.”

As with traditional bocce, a small yellow ball called the ‘pallino’ is rolled down the court first, with teams then rolling four balls each per frame to see who can come closest to the target ball. The scoring system is similar to curling; the team with the ball closest to the pallino ‘wins’ that frame, scoring one point for each ball which lands closer to the target than the opponent’s nearest ball. Each game ends either after 30 minutes or when one team reaches 16 points.

“The difference between outdoor and indoor bocce is, you aren’t allowed to volley. You can’t throw it up into the air with the intention of having it come straight down to knock out another ball,” Osani explained.

Think the smooth roll of bowling, not horseshoes or slow-pitch softball tosses. The sport’s etiquette also mirrors bowling or golf, with spectators asked to remain quiet until after the athlete has completed their throw.

“It’s extraordinarily simple, but it’s complex in its strategy and gameplay,” Osani said.

Port outlasted Oswayo Valley, 6-2, 2-4, 6-3 in its first match, while the Green Wave swept Bradford in the other league match.

“It was funny, I was coaching against an old classmate from 2009, Tyler Payne. He’s coaching Oswayo Valley,” Osani said of the Feb. 5 opener. “We won the first game, he won the second game. The tiebreaker game, we won the very last roll that was left before time ran out. Our player, Morgan Dowell, rolled the ball and hit the pallino into our other balls and scored three points in one roll. Before that, we just had three points after 25 minutes of playing. So in one deft movement, one strategic roll, she managed to score just as many points as we’d been working towards.

“It was very close, and we had a game-winning roll, which is pretty neat. It was almost like something out of a movie or a book. It felt good.”

With six weeks of practice and one match under their belt, Osani says everything is going well for the new team.

“I’ve heard nothing but support, nothing but good things. The players are enjoying it, ALL the players,” he emphasized. “It’s cool to see players being friends with each other that you’d normally think, ‘Oh, they couldn’t be friends, they’re too different.’ You work with the kids for a week or two and you realize how silly that is. They’re just like everybody else, it’s just kind of difficult to know that because they’re not around all the time.

“I think the program is doing exactly what it’s intended to do. It’s completely 100 percent successful in every aspect, and I couldn’t be happier. The meets are fun. I think that if we could get more people playing it, more people who understand the game, it becomes more interesting.”

Osani, who also serves as an assistant for the girls soccer team, concluded, “It reminds me a lot of when I was in tenth grade and the soccer program came out, and I was on that original team that Aaron Clark and Matt Lawton were coaching. I remember nobody really liked soccer, but to me, it always seemed like it was because they didn’t understand it. It took some time, but now that people understand it, it’s a successful program. You’ve just got to stay positive and do your best with it. Wins help, too.”