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Players of varied abilities combine skills to take Ligonier Valley to state bocce championships

Mar. 19—The Rolling Rams, in just their second year as a Ligonier Valley High School varsity program, are sending an eight-member team to the state bocce championships in Hershey.

One of two Ligonier Valley squads competing in the sport, the second-seeded Rams Team One, is scheduled to face off Thursday morning against Peters Township at Giant Center.

The team departed a day early, with a sendoff from the high school band and local first responders, to celebrate their achievements so far with a visit to the Hershey's Chocolate World attraction.

"I think everybody is pretty excited," said head coach Brooke Sampeer.

It's been particularly gratifying for Sampeer because all but two of the students in the special education life skills class she teaches at the school are also players in the unified bocce program.

Ligonier Valley is one of more than 400 Pennsylvania teams that compete in the program — a partnership between the PIAA and Special Olympics that sanctions coed teams including both student-athletes who have intellectual disabilities and others who don't.

"It's so beneficial for both groups of students," Sampeer said. "It has made everybody a little more accepting of individuals with disabilities. They can see people of all ability levels participating together in this sport.

"It's brought parents, the school community, individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities all together for one common goal."

The bond that has developed among the students has been just as important to the team's success as the guidance provided by the coaches.

"The members have embraced being teammates." Sampeer said. "They've cheered each other on and been encouraging when somebody didn't make a great play.

"The coaches are not allowed to coach during a match; we just sit and watch. The students are allowed to coach each other from the sidelines."

Ligonier Valley senior Tyler Jordan said he's learned much through his involvement with the team.

"I've learned about being patient and learning to explain things better," he said, "to make sure everyone is on the same page with the correct rules and everyone is understanding of each other.

"I'm thrilled to be able to have this experience of going to Hershey and being able to share it with peers as well as the coaches. Everyone is excited to go. We have five freshmen on our team who are going to states for their first year."

The game of bocce has been a new experience for everybody in the Ligonier Valley program, including the coaches and the players. But they've caught on fast.

Sampeer explained the object of the game is to roll a ball onto the court so that it comes to rest closer than your opponent's ball does to a smaller target ball. Alternative strategies are to roll your ball into either the target ball or an opponent's ball, to knock the opponent out of position.

Judging the finesse needed to send a ball on the ideal trajectory to land in a winning position can be difficult — particularly since each of the school gyms where matches normally are held has a floor with some unique qualities. That's why teams get a 15-minute warmup to become familiar with the playing surface.

Senior Jordan Howard, the Team One co-captain, agreed that getting attuned to the court surface and determining the force to apply to the ball is a major challenge for bocce players.

"It's not that easy when you roll it," he said. "You can roll it easily or hard, and the ball just goes this way or that way."

Competing in the regional qualifying tournament was nerve-wracking for Howard, and for the rest of the team and its supporters.

"It's a little shocking," he said. "I didn't know we could make it this far."

The Rolling Rams clinched their trip to Hershey on March 6, with a 7-6 overtime win against South Parkat Geneva College.

"We were able in overtime to get our ball closest pretty early," said assistant coach Tyler Kocsis. "South Park tried to hit our ball out of the way, but they didn't."

"People in the stands were jumping up and down," Sampeer said of the team's supporters.

All of the team members can experience the thrill of achievement as they head to Hershey.

They're within three more wins of claiming the state title.

Sampeer believes the trip is especially meaningful for the players with disabilities and their families.

"I think this program has been really important to the parents of the kids with disabilities," she said. "They probably didn't think their child would get a varsity letter, much less play on one of the top eight teams in the state."

Jeff Himler is a TribLive reporter covering Greater Latrobe, Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant Area and Derry Area school districts and their communities. He also reports on transportation issues. A journalist for more than three decades, he enjoys delving into local history. He can be reached at jhimler@triblive.com.