Severna Park High School’s unified tennis team walked away with a gold medal at the state championships in November and another gold and three silver medals during the county championships. But for members of the team, the ultimate reward does not come in physical form.
Through the program, students without disabilities play tennis with their peers who have disabilities.
“You see athletes, you see musicians, you see kids from all different areas in the building come together,” said Severna Park unified tennis head coach Nadine Hendler. “It’s about making friends and it’s about helping each other on and off the court.”
Brandon Dennis and William Stimpson illustrate Hendler’s point. If not for unified tennis, the students would likely never have met since they do not share any classes or socialize with the same peers.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s a good leadership opportunity,” Dennis said. “I wish I had someone freshman year who told me what to do.”
With support from Dennis, Stimpson was focused as he prepared for a fall match against Northeast.
“I like going to other schools to battle other teams,” he said.
Like Dennis, senior Ainsley Jeffers saw unified tennis as a good leadership opportunity, so she joined the program as a freshman.
“I really like the atmosphere,” Jeffers said. “The kids who come to play the sport, they aren’t doing it to look good. They’re doing it because they want to be here.
“It builds a friendship,” she added. “You have to communicate and be engaged with [the students who have disabilities].”
Severna Park fielded a team with 37 athletes this fall. Practice was held two days per week.
“All of our players have to volley, serve, hit [the ball] back, and they get scored between six and 25,” said Kevin Schiavone, an assistant coach with the Severna Park squad.
Through practice, players improve their sports skills and build higher self-esteem.
“They are considered varsity athletes, just like the soccer players, field hockey players or football players,” said Tim Swann, who coaches a team for Northeast High School. “It’s rewarding; it’s one of those positive experiences for everybody who’s involved.”
Hendler agreed, saying she has seen a lifelong benefit for all athletes involved.
“It gives every kid an opportunity for an even playing field,” Hendler said. “You’re all there for the same reason: to learn the sport whether it’s bocce or bowling or tennis, to make friends, to meet people from other schools. It’s not about winning the game right now or winning the game in the county tournament. It’s about cheering each other on.”
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