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Corollary softball gives disabled students a chance to get in the game

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; D01

Inside the Gaithersburg gymnasium, Amy Marshall is frantically trying to organize her teammates for their first yearbook photo. Some don't want to wear their ball caps, others can't seem to stand still and their unofficial spokeswoman doesn't hide her displeasure.

"C'mon guys, straighten up," she says, strutting around the group like a mother hen in her hot pink Chuck Taylors. "This is important!"

Easily the most outgoing member of a newly founded softball team, Amy, 14, is on a mission to promote interest and recruit new players. Or, in this case, relay the significance of the picture taken during the team's inaugural season.

The students in matching white T-shirts with "Gaithersburg" emblazoned on the front and royal blue athletic shorts eventually line up for a few serious poses, but then the photographer asks them to loosen up. They instinctively stick out their tongues and flash peace signs. Amy tilts her hat and assumes a gruff expression as laughter erupts in the gym.

"I've always wanted to be on a team like this," Amy says. "Everyone in my family -- my dad, my brothers -- played softball or baseball. I never could before except for some catch, but now my family can come watch me."

For Amy and her six teammates, who are all special needs students, the adapted softball program the Montgomery County public school system started this spring (known as corollary softball) offers an opportunity for inclusion that few disabled students and their families believed would exist in conjunction with traditional high schools.

It is one of several new sports emerging in Maryland, created specifically to cater to disabled students as districts seek to comply with Maryland's Fitness and Athletic Equity Act for Students with Disabilities. The 2008 law gave the state's public school districts three years to implement equivalent athletic programs for students with special needs.

Those details are irrelevant, however, as the Trojans jog around the gym, stretch their arms and legs and take practice swings with foam bats in preparation for that day's game against Rockville. After a sportsmanship announcement, player introductions and "The Star-Spangled Banner" reverberate through the gym, Amy retrieves her glove from the bleachers where a few feet away her father, Doug Marshall, fiddles with the camera on his cellphone.

"Hold on Amy, give me just one second," he pleads. "I want to get a picture of you in your uniform."

But Amy, the consummate professional, refuses to be distracted or worse, late to her position.

"Hurry up, Dad!" she interjects. "I have to get out in the field. My team needs me."

Joining the team

Amy was born with WAGR syndrome, a rare genetic defect that results in myriad physical problems, including Wilms tumors (a common form of kidney cancer in children) and aniridia (the absence of irises). Before Amy turned 3, doctors removed her right kidney and a third of her left; she also underwent months of chemotherapy that damaged several nerves, including one that runs down her right leg, leaving her with an awkward gait. Her pupils are always fully dilated, and she is considered legally blind with 20/200 vision.

When teachers in the Gaithersburg special education program passed out information on the corollary softball team, Amy signed up without hesitation. She got home from school and presented her mom with the news, asking not if she could play but rather how quickly they could fill out the paperwork and get a physical completed.

"Most of these kids understand that they're different," Amy's mother, Shari Krantz, said. "Once they reach high school it can be hard for them to find a good way to socialize. So for them to have a program where they can feel included, be among their friends as part of a team and not need to worry about being made fun of is incredible. I never expected them to start something like this."

The state's deadline for school districts to have sports in place for disabled students is July 1, 2011, but several counties chose to start sooner with small schedules. They used Baltimore County, which implemented an allied program modeled after the Special Olympics' Unified Sports initiative during the 1994-95 school year, as their model. According to Athletics Coordinator Ron Belinko, 1,279 students in 19 of Baltimore County's 24 schools participated in allied soccer, bowling or softball in 2009.

Most of the teams allow able-bodied students to compete as well, with the caveat that they have not played on any varsity or junior varsity squads. The majority of students do have disabilities, however, ranging from behavioral and emotional problems to autism and physical handicaps.

Montgomery's pilot corollary softball program features five schools -- Gaithersburg, Rockville, Kennedy, Blake and Springbrook -- with teams of seven to 12 players. Administrators hope to have six to eight schools participate in pilot programs for track and field in the fall and bocce in the winter in their inaugural seasons, then expand to all 25 schools in the county, according to county athletic director Duke Beattie.

The Howard County school district partnered with First Tee, a PGA-sponsored developmental golf initiative designed for disadvantaged children, to offer an allied golf program this spring. Approximately 30 students from nine of the county's 13 schools head to the Fairway Hills golf club in Columbia twice a week for practice. On Thursdays they gather for a scramble-style competition, with some students using adapted, raised tees while others hit closer to the hole.

Beginning in the 2011-12 school year, Howard will also offer adapted soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter and softball in the spring. By incorporating the golf program into a pre-existing relationship with First Tee there were no additional startup costs and Howard administrators gave themselves more time to prepare to add three new sports to the budget. The state did not provide any funding for the mandate.

"We'll add the new sports into our next budget year but it's a safe estimate that we -- and many counties -- will likely see something of a 5 to 10 percent budget increase when everything is up and running," said Mike Williams, Howard County coordinator of athletics. "Because you're not building new facilities and may already have the equipment the largest costs will likely be coaching stipends and transportation, but percentage wise it's not hard to find ways to make it work."

The inaugural season

For their first two games, the Trojans fielded a team of only five players, borrowing a few others from their opponents on game day. Two more students joined in time for the third game against Kennedy, however, after hearing endorsements from players like Amy and once their parents received reassurance from Athletic Director Jason Woodward and Coach Steve Schwarten.

"A lot of parents aren't used to the idea that their kids could participate in a school activity like this," said Schwarten, who teaches U.S. history and government to special needs students at Gaithersburg. "Once we get over the hump of the inaugural season and we have more chances to promote the sports, it will be a natural thing for them to join and I think we'll see more interest."

Amy's aniridia and limited vision prohibit her from seeing at a distance, yet she can read and view things at close range. For instance, she can't see the hollow neon-yellow softball or make out a specific batter from her spot at second base, but if the ball rolls toward her she can pick it up to tag a base for an out.

When she readies for her turn at the plate, Amy searches for the helmet without a cage in front, knowing she can see better with an unobstructed view of the ball. "I don't let my vision problems keep me from hitting well," says Amy, who hits off of a tee. She's already asked for a jacket to put her varsity letter on when she receives it at the end of the season.

"When they first diagnosed the aniridia and then the tumors, the doctors told me be glad she's a girl. She can stay inside and play with dolls." Krantz said. "Then when they removed part of the second kidney they said she might have five years. We've always done everything to try to give her a normal childhood and to see her able to have the same experience as other kids means a lot. She's just so excited to come to school, especially on practice or game days."

By the final half inning against Kennedy, Amy, who is acclimating to the increased amount of physical activity, had grown tired and contemplated asking for a pinch runner. But this was the Trojans' closest contest yet this season. They trailed by only one run, and the possibility of the first win in program history was very much alive, so after hitting a single Amy decided to stay in the game.

She later scored one of the Trojans' two runs to capture their first victory, 24-23, which was commemorated by a team picture for the trophy display case.

"I didn't want to come out because I knew the team needed me if we were going to come back," Amy said. "I wanted to do it for my team and this win was great. This is such a big deal for us. I can't wait to tell everyone in school that we won."

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