CHESTERTOWN — Small but mighty is how Kent County High School’s coaches frequently describe their teams, and those adjectives are very appropriate for the unified bocce squad of four athletes and four partners.
The Trojans were unbeaten this spring, winning both matches in the district competition at the end of April and a first-round match at the Special Olympics Maryland state high school championship on a rainy May 24 at Washington College’s Roy Kirby Jr. Stadium.
Unfortunately, due to a transportation issue, they had to leave the state tournament at 1:30 p.m. — before their second match.
KCHS defeated a school from Anne Arundel County in the opening round, 7-5, positioning itself for a second gold medal in as many competitions.
Kent had beaten Queen Anne’s and Kent Island at districts, which were held at The Edge Arena in Stevensville.
Unified teams are comprised of students with intellectual disabilities and students without disabilities, who train and compete together.
This year’s roster was led by athletes Tom Rickloff, Palmer Hopwood, Mackeznie Weaver and Malik Roberts.
Longtime coach Christa Collison said her bocce teams have always been strong, but acknowledged being a little surprised by this year’s success.
To begin with, Rickloff was the only returnee.
In addition to three first-year athletes, all the partners — sisters Starr and Skylar Wyatt, Nataly Niz and Andrea Espinal Pedraza — were new too.
Like countless school systems across the country, Kent County has been adversely affected by a bus driver shortage. Because bocce practice was after school, this was a deal-breaker for a few potential athletes and partners who did not have their own transportation, according to Collison.
Plus, there weren’t any regular-season matches to prep the Trojans for the district and state tournaments. In years past, they’d had as many as three.
Despite the obstacles, the Trojans triumphed in 2022.
A lot of that credit should go to Rickloff.
“Tom was the veteran and I always put him last so he could bring home the winning point. He had such terrific aim,” Collison said.
Rickloff was a true team player, “always willing to do whatever I asked,” Collison added.
Collison, a registered nurse and health occupations instructor at KCHS, helped start the bocce program here in 2011.
This year, for the first time, the Trojans were able to practice on a real bocce court instead of the school’s hallways.
KCHS’ all-sports booster club led by Dennis Walters and other volunteers built the court last fall.
“It was an amazing thing, a real court, that gave us a true roll,” said Collison.
Make that a real half-court.
A territorial mother wren built a nest at one end and “wouldn’t let us near it,” Collison said.
Kent County also fielded a strength and conditioning team in the winter. Practices began in November leading up to the district competition in February at another Edge Arena facility, where the Trojans took bronze.
Events included two walking relays, cycling on a stationary bike, dead lift and bench press.
Senior Hannah Beattie, a member of the Trojans’ wrestling team, was a unified partner in the winter. (A challenging academic schedule of Advanced Placement courses in the spring precluded her from participating in bocce.)
Beattie and Rickloff teamed for a second year in the demanding PT (physical training) series of exercises that include jumping jacks, burpees, sit-ups and squats.
Collison, who was assisted by Laura Johnson for a second year, has gone on record as saying she will be back in 2022-23.
“The kids are wonderful, parents are great, and the partners really want to be here,” she said.