An unusual sport unites a school

Bocce team members cheering
Drew Riesmeyer (left) and Miles Halter (right) play for Mt. Lebanon High School Unified Bocce. Athletes compete in teams of two­­—one student with a disability and one student without a disability­­— to win games. The program is so popular that there’s a significant waitlist to join. 

When you think about sports that high schoolers play, bocce isn’t likely at the top of that list. Yet the students at Mt. Lebanon High School are very into the game, and for a good reason.

This winter, students at the high school participated in the first Lebo Legacy Games, a school-wide bocce tournament. In previous years, the school held an optional, half-day sports and games tournament before winter break to promote school spirit. Students were grouped in teams based on the elementary school they attended—but if you didn’t attend one of these schools, you were put on a mismatched team of “transfer” students. Plus, the tournament usually featured a high-energy and competitive sport like basketball. Many students described feeling left out of the event and opted to not participate.

Recognizing these shortcomings, a group of students decided to reinvent the spirit day. The  lead organizers are seniors CJ Korowicki and Teba Latef. They’re both involved in LeboSTARS, a student-run organization that pairs students with disabilities with their non-disabled peers for social activities. Korowicki and Latef came up with the idea for the bocce tournament last year when they attended the Unified Special Olympics Youth Summit. It was there that they learned how to create a school-wide event that fully includes disabled students.

Group portrait of bocce players
Organizers of the Lebo Legacy Games, known as the OG 6. From left, top row: Beverly Jones, Heather Pessy, Christy Brodbeck and Brittany Tonkavich. Bottom row, seniors CJ Korowicki and Teba Latef.

“The Legacy Games is meant to unite everyone,” said Latef. “It’s showcasing the new wave of inclusivity at the high school.”

As the lead coordinators, Korowicki and Latef had weekly meetings with teachers to ensure the half-day event, with 42 teams of six to eight players, would go off without a hitch.

The Lebo Legacy Games might have been many students’ first experience with bocce, but the school has had a Unified Bocce team for more than 10 years. Bocce is a staple of many Special Olympic Games because it’s a sport people of varying physical and intellectual abilities can play and enjoy. The concept is simple: each team has two players who take turns rolling a bocce ball toward a target ball, called a pallino. The team who rolls the bocce ball closest to the pallino wins. In Unified Bocce, a student with a disability is paired with a non-disabled student and they play as a team.

Miles Halter, a senior, has been on the Unified Bocce team since his sophomore year. He’s played on the team the longest of everyone, but he says there are no captains. On their team, everyone gets an equal chance to play. Halter’s favorite part of bocce is “seeing the other athletes succeed. It’s been super impactful for me and the kids involved.”

Bocce coaches work with players
Pittsburgh Pirates Announcer Robby Incmikoski provides commentary as student referees Zaire Dinkins (left) and Fiona Cavanaugh (right) measure distances.

The team has become so popular there’s a waitlist to join. Claire Bruno, a junior in the LeboSTARS program and student liaison to the Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board, is one of several students on that waitlist. That’s why she was happy to have the chance to play in the Legacy Games. When asked what she finds most rewarding about being involved with the special education program, Bruno quickly replied, “Friends! I didn’t expect to make my best friends. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. I have met so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

During the December 22 event, you could feel the excitement in the gymnasium as students cheered on teams and embraced school spirit in a new way. Christy Brodbeck, one of the teachers involved in organizing the tournament, said “You never know how something new will work out, so it’s been great to see this be a success. A lot of the kids didn’t know how to play bocce before today, but now they’re into it and hopefully this inspires them to come to the Unified Bocce games as well.”

Brodbeck affirmed this year’s event felt much more inclusive and welcoming, since anyone could sign up to play as an individual or a team, not limited by where they went to school several years ago. Junior student Sarah Althawadi said she hadn’t participated in previous events, but this year it felt easy to get involved. In the middle of the loud and energetic gym, she said, “I just love the format. It’s very easy to get the hang of bocce—anyone can do it.”

Mt. Lebanon School District Superintendent Melissa Friez was on a bocce team with Ron Davis, assistant superintendent for secondary education. They approached the event with enthusiasm but were eliminated in the first round. “The winner at the end had never played bocce before, which means there’s hope for us.”

Friez noted the event created a great positive vibe which was a perfect start to the holiday school break.

There are talks of the bocce tournament becoming an annual fixture at the high school. Whether it continues as the Lebo Legacy Games or not is yet to be seen. Still, Korowicki and Latef made sure to include juniors in the planning process, so they have the knowledge and experience to continue the tournament next year. Latef said, “It’s not about loving bocce. It’s about giving everyone the chance to embrace school spirit.”

Photography by Marilee Kline