Montgomery County’s bocce program thriving as students of all stripes get a chance to play sports

December 21, 2012

All of the varsity sports photos had been properly aligned on the cement wall in the foyer of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School last winter, and that’s when 17-year-old Izzy Kessler knew something was missing. She searched up and down, right and left, and her team’s picture wasn’t there.

Kessler had just earned her second varsity letter with the school’s bocce team, having not missed a practice nor a game since the sport was introduced in Montgomery County in 2010, with some of the practices even taking place in the school hallways. And she wanted to make sure everyone remembered that the program had been in the hallways, too. The photo went up shortly after Kessler had asked the athletic department to find it and place it.

Izzy and her father, Lewis, had a small celebration after it had gone up.

“We’re a varsity sport, too,” she later said.

A year later, Kessler is a junior and back for her third season with the team, which started practice last week. Bocce has never been more popular at the school, or in the county for that matter. Bethesda-Chevy Chase has more than doubled its roster from last season, when it competed against seven schools in Montgomery County; about 20 schools are expected to participate this winter. It is a sharp ascent for corollary sports in the county, which started in response to Maryland’s Fitness and Athletic Equity Act for Students with Disabilities — a 2008 law which requires school districts in the state to develop programs for students with special needs. Half of the bocce rosters at each school must be composed of students with special needs.

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, the corollary bocce ball team gives special needs kids a chance to compete. (James Sherill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

That bocce became one of the programs introduced (handball and softball are also programs in the fall and spring) was perfect for Kessler. Born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, bocce was one of the few sports that she could compete against family growing up. Lewis, like most parents, was worried his daughter would struggle with acceptance in high school. Moreover, he was concerned that she wouldn’t have an extracurricular activity that she stuck with. In bocce, Kessler has found an interest that borders on obsession. The practices twice a week, the road trips to other schools, the crowds in the B-CC gym during games — which sometimes can grow to a couple hundred people — have all given her an authentic high school experience.

“It’s really fun, because these are [kids] that wouldn’t traditionally be on any varsity team. It provides a great opportunity for a lot of kids,” Coach Lesli Gillman said. “It’s in no way marginalized.”

Kessler has never been one to gush over a 4.0 on her report card, but the night she earned her first varsity letter at the B-CC athletic banquet, she came home and called nearly 50 friends and relatives to tell them.

“You know they’re going to give [the letter] to you. It’s exciting,” Kessler said. “I think we’ll have more opportunities [to play] . . . you get to go to other schools. I like traveling, too.”

In cultivating its corollary sports program, B-CC’s athletic department has attracted a diverse set of athletes to its bocce club. The team has brought together Kessler and senior Selena Chavez, for example. Chavez doesn’t have special needs, but she also had not played a sport in her life. She was skeptical to go out for the team last year, but quickly fell in love with the bocce culture. Unlike football or basketball, the sport has a backyard feel to it; four players on each team compete in a conversational atmosphere, trying to position the inflatable bocce near the pallino on a 60-foot course enclosed by PVC pipe.

It’s simple, and a sport Chavez can carry with her after high school. When she listed the activity on her application to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., this fall, her acceptance letter came back with a personal note from the dean, who asked her to start a bocce club at the school if she decided to go there.

“I had never heard of bocce” until last year, Chavez said. “We all have an equal opportunity to play. We are all equal.”


Bethesda-Chevy Chase has more than doubled its roster from last season, when it competed against seven schools in Montgomery County; about 20 schools are expected to participate this winter. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Chavez grew close with Kessler last season, when the team had just five players. The team now has 12 players, but little has changed. During the second practice of the season last week, Chavez and other teammates helped Kessler on a certain throw. When the pallino is too far for her to reach by hand, or when her arm gets tired, Kessler uses a long plastic tube to drop the bocce in and roll.

During this particular practice, Kessler pulled her wheelchair up to the line on the course in the school’s hallway, angled the tube on the floor, and pushed her ball in. It rolled through the device and out onto the course, but not nearly close enough to the pallino for Kessler to be satisfied. She’s demanding of herself and her sport, just like she was demanding of the proper recognition in the hallway a year ago.

“When you hear all the folks in the stands cheering when she has a really good throw, and then she just turns to the stands and beams,” Lewis Kessler said, “it’s a pretty cool moment.”

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