- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Together, they celebrated the joy of a strike, the agony of a gutter ball.

They high-fived and cheered. They offered each other earnest advice.

“Make sure you roll it right down the middle, like I did,” Omaha North High senior Jordyn Long-Deal told a teammate.

It’s the first season for North High and more than 40 other high school unified bowling teams across the state. Newly sanctioned by the Nebraska School Activities Association, unified sports is a competitive program with a mix of student-athletes: Some have intellectual disabilities, some don’t.

During weekly practice, the kids at North - who take different classes and run in different social circles - spend their gym period together at Maplewood Lanes. And they bowl.

“It’s not just a get-out-of-school thing,” said senior Kristie Garcia, one of the “partner” students who help the special education student-athletes. “You come here and almost bring them out of their shell.”

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2f7D7al ) reports that unified sports are a partnership between the NSAA and Special Olympics Nebraska. Local districts participating include Omaha, Westside, Elkhorn, Bellevue, Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Ralston.

Previously, schools could offer unified activities as a club, but now it’s an activity that will include competitive matches and a postseason championship.

Bowling was the first sport selected. The season started in mid-October and will wrap up in December.

Already, there’s been talk of adding more sports in coming years, such as swimming, golf and track and field. Schools can receive grants to offset some of the bowling costs, and some bowling alleys have waived game fees in a gesture of good will.

For students with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders or learning delays, this could be their first opportunity to compete on a school team, said NSAA Assistant Director Dan Masters. Being involved in school-sponsored activities and sports can boost students’ confidence and make them feel more invested in their school community, he said.

“A lot of these teams probably will be recognized at a pep rally, and that’s something that’s maybe never happened for them,” Masters said. “That’s exciting.”

The teams strive for an even split of students with and without disabilities, though the North High team has only two general education students, Kristie and fellow senior Ciera Pieters, and seven special education students.

Ciera participated last year on a unified volleyball team and had a blast. She doesn’t have much confidence in her bowling skills - “I’m terrible,” she said - but leapt at the chance to get involved again. She recruited Kristie, too.

“I was asked to do bowling, and I was like, ‘Yes! It’s going to be so much fun, and we’re going to make some new friends,’” Ciera said. “A lot of it is about connections and getting to be with them.”

School officials said it’s important to get different groups of students mixing and mingling. At North, the team has also started a book club, which meets on Wednesdays. They’re reading “Robin Hood,” chapter by chapter.

“At bowling, they get to come in and realize the students in my room have the same likes and dislikes as them,” said Lindsey Holley, bowling coach and special education teacher. “The academic portion is just hard for them. It’s awfully good to recognize that in someone else, and recognize we’re all different people and all have different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we forget that.”

At the bowling alley, Ciera prodded and encouraged Hannah Faber, a shy senior.

“Alright, Hannah, head up, you got this,” she said.

Hannah rolled the ball and smiled when she saw she knocked down nine pins.

Junior Bryce Vaughn ended the practice with a respectable score of 88.

“I really like bowling because I get to be with my friends. I get to be active,” he said. “It’s a lot better than just sitting around at home.”

Holley said the trips to Maplewood Lanes also help her students practice different social skills, from talking to the cashier behind the counter to remembering to return their rented bowling shoes.

“All of those things are skills we don’t think about, we just do,” she said. “But they need to practice.”

Across town, Westside High’s unified bowling team geared up for its first match of the season, against Bryan High.

The Westside team numbers 14, with a fairly even split of students with and without disabilities, said transition program teacher Mark Pokorny. Team members wear matching red-and-black bowling shirts.

It took a little while for students to start to break down barriers, he said.

“The first practice was almost like an eighth-grade dance,” he said. “Boys on one side, girls on the other.”

But soon, students got to talking, and some of that shyness and uncertainty evaporated, Pokorny said.

“It’s not just about helping one group or another,” he said. “It’s about improving relationships across the board, building friendships.”

Westside High senior Kiley Stastny, one of the partner bowlers, is no slouch when it comes to bowling. She competed on a league for three years and effortlessly bowled a back-to-back strike and a spare at Tuesday’s match.

At Westside, there are not always many opportunities for general and special education students to hang out together, she said. Classes can be separate, and students tend to stick together with their own cliques in the cafeteria.

“They’re all sweet kids,” she said of her special education teammates. “I definitely think it’s better for them to interact with other peers.”

The team has helped freshman Breanna Fleek spend time with some old and new friends.

“I knew all my friends were on the team,” she said. “I’m still learning how to bowl, because I haven’t bowled much before.”

Alisa Hoffman’s son Matt, a special education student who’s a sophomore at Elkhorn South High, competes on the school’s team.

Joining the team cultivates pride in the students, she said. They had T-shirts made that serve as a team uniform and were recently recognized at a school assembly.

The bowling matches also allow parents of special needs teens to network and talk to one other, she said.

“It gives his brothers something to go watch,” Hoffman said. “He’s always gone to their games, and now he has his own thing to do.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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