The unified sports programs in Anne Arundel County have been a huge success since unified tennis, bowling and bocce were implemented a handful of years ago.
This fall, the unified tennis team at Severna Park High School had perhaps its biggest and best season ever.
Not only did the Falcons win gold in their division at the state championship event at Loyola University in November, the team also put forth a season of accomplishing goals, developing tennis skills, building lasting friendships, advancing causes important to them and enjoying the experience.
“Unified sports gives students the opportunity to work together and create friendships with students who they normally would not have the opportunity to meet,” said SPHS unified sports coach and health education teacher Nadine Hendler. “They are very supportive of each other, from teaching each other the skills of the game to cheering each other on and off the court to taking an interest in the things they learn about their new friends as the season progresses.”
In addition to success on the court, the team pursued an initiative together. The Falcons dedicated the season to cancer awareness, holding multiple fundraisers and donating all funds to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in the name of Gabriella Pellicani, the late granddaughter of Severna Park boys basketball coach Paul Pellicani. The team held a Think Pink match against North County in October, with both teams wearing pink and grey T-shirts that read, “Two Teams One Cause.” Falcon unified tennis continued fundraising efforts at area restaurants and altogether raised $1,800 to donate.
Beyond fundraising, the day-to-day enjoyment of the program, which comprised about 35 total athletes both with and without disabilities, was naturally how the student-athletes felt the biggest impacts.
“Being a member of the unified tennis team this year was super fun and rewarding,” said senior Julia Putzi. “The dynamic of the team is very welcoming, and the main goal is to make sure everyone enjoys themselves. Winning states this year was an added bonus.”
Junior Lauren Atcheson was a first-time member of the team and enjoyed the experience.
“I had never played a unified sport for the school but heard great things about the program from my older sister, Macey,” Atcheson said. “Being a part of this special team was a really rewarding experience. I got partnered with one of my really close friends and it was exciting to win states when we both had never played before. I also got to branch out and make new friends in the process, which I think was my favorite part about the season.”
Senior Lauren Brannen said the camaraderie of everyone rooting for each other made playing and improving a fun process.
“I think what was enjoyable about the team this year was not only that everyone played really well, but as a team, everyone got along and we all cheered each other on during every practice and every match,” Brannen said. “It makes everyone and the coaches really proud to see everyone succeed during the season, especially during states this year.”
Hendler said the program and the students who come out to play are a model of the collegial and supportive environment at Severna Park High School and within the county’s school system.
“This program is very special to me,” said Hendler. “I am honored to work with such wonderful and caring students at Severna Park High School. As I walk down the hallways of the school or just watch from a distance during practice or a match, it gives me a sense of pride to know that these kids are representing our school. They are what unified sports are all about. They are a welcoming group that includes everyone, not only in our school but the entire AACPS community.”