A version of this column originally appeared in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.
Kentucky has created a new category in high school bowling. On paperwork regarding my daughter’s participation, I saw it referred to as the unified division.
If you think on that a minute, the name could sound like an oxymoron. But don’t tell Highlands High School’s Parker Thomas that.
On a cold Feb. 9 morning in Lexington, Thomas advanced with partner Maddie Shelton to the bowling finals of Kentucky’s unified division. Held as part of the state high school bowling tournament, unified bowling pairs a student with intellectual disabilities and one without for training and competition.
And compete they did. But even in the midst of an intense match up with Louisville’s Southern High School, there was not much division. Thomas kept getting high fives from – and giving them right back to – a man coaching the opposition.
You read that right. The opposition. During competition. In the state finals.
The crowd that had gathered around the bowlers on lanes 19 and 20 at Collins-Eastland Bowling Center cheered on both teams as they battled back and forth. Strike after strike after spare. Pins crashing. Spirits soaring.
Three NKY high schools represented
Highlands, the Region 5 champ, was one of three Northern Kentucky teams to make history as competitors in the first state tournament for unified bowling. Region 5 runner-up Simon Kenton also qualified thanks to the skills of Nick Blacketer and Mitchell Kreidenweis.
From Region 6, my daughter, Anna Mimms, bowled with partner Hannah Day to represent Cooper High School. In the qualifying round, they bowled a 120 to earn a No. 3 seed, followed by Highlands at No. 7 with a 99 and Simon Kenton at No. 8 with a 97.
In all, 13 unified pairs represented ten schools and all eight bowling regions in the state. The teams bowled two-person Baker games, in which bowlers on the same team alternate frames to bowl a complete game.
I hadn’t planned on being a reporter that day. I was there to cheer on Anna, who has special needs, and Hannah in a state championship – an event I never saw coming for my daughter, sister to two big brothers, both former multi-sport high school athletes. A daughter who tried out for bowling at a different high school three years ago with little to no chance of making it. Who was cut and, even so, tried out again the next year. Who loved bowling with Special Olympics but so wanted to wear her school’s team colors, just like her brothers had.
The girl even designed her high school class ring with a bowling ball and pins on it.
Then, for unrelated reasons, came the switch to Cooper. Bowling coaches Joe Deters and Elmer Bales said yes to Anna’s being on the school’s team. And when the state presented the prospect of unified bowling, the coaches said yes again.
That is how I found myself, on that championship morning, breathing in an atmosphere of shared knowing. It is a shared knowing of hopes and dreams amid challenges and adjustments. It is watching together loved ones with special needs achieve something their families probably never saw coming either.
This bowling division had an immense sense of unity and inclusion. I felt compelled to put on my reporter’s hat.
Sport promotes growth and inclusion
Sarah Bridenbaugh is an assistant commissioner with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. As part of her duties, she oversees bowling and is the association’s main liaison for unified sports. She was busy during the state competition gliding among the lanes, but during a break, the former high school math teacher and basketball coach talked with me.
Her enthusiasm for unified sports was apparent immediately. She commented on the great turnout and how much the teams enjoyed the tournament.
“This is an opportunity for all student athletes to represent their high school at a state championship,” Bridenbaugh said. They get to wear their school colors, do their school cheer, partner with another student and be part of a team, she added. Unified sports, she said, promotes the growth of athletes and inclusion for those with special needs.
KHSAA partners with Special Olympics of Kentucky to offer unified sports. Bowling is the second unified sport in Kentucky. Unified track and field was first offered in 2015.
Bridenbaugh said she envisions unified sports growing in Kentucky. While the state has no immediate plans, she said she hopes to have at least one sport available for unified athletes in each of the three high school sports seasons.
I could see that the competition meant a lot to her. “One kid getting that opportunity was worth all the work that we’ve done. … [It was] an emotional and spirited competition,” she said.
The unified competition was “a great way to kick off the state bowling tournament,” Bridenbaugh said. “The enthusiasm of these teams will carry over to the singles and team competitions.”
Enthusiasm electrified the crowd
Even with the tournament excitement swirling around me, I focused intently on Anna and Hannah as they bowled.
The girls had advanced to the quarter finals after the top three seeds got a bye in the first round of head-to-head competition. They were bowling against a team from Meade County High School when I heard an unfamiliar male voice cheering for Anna after she bowled.
I turned to my right to see a Meade County fan cheering on my daughter and her teammate. For the first time I noticed what appeared to be a family next to me. I got a quick reminder of what this competition was all about.
“Isn’t this great?” I said to the woman.
She agreed. She told me that she was the mother of the two Meade County boys, Parker and Brandon Whitaker. What a great opportunity for them to compete together for their high school, we agreed again. I widened my focus to include the two boys bowling against my daughter, cheering them on as well.
The Whitaker brothers won 99-70 and went on to the semi-finals, losing to Highlands 140-93. It was during that game that I first noticed Parker Thomas. As my husband put it, his celebrations at each frame he bowled “electrified the crowd.”
Highlands, and the ever enthusiastic Thomas, moved on to face No. 1 seed Southern in the final.
Coach happy to be involved
When Highlands girls and boys bowling coach Glenn Schmidt first learned of the unified division, he was less than enthusiastic.
I caught up with the coach, who owns La Ru Lanes in Highland Heights, during a break between the unified and singles championships. He told me that the prospect of coaching in another division left him unsure and wondering “How am I going to do it?”
But that all changed at the tournament.
“This is what bowling is all about,” he said. “It means the world to these kids.”
While Schmidt has had bowlers with special needs on his team for years, he appreciates the recognition and opportunity for inclusion they get in the unified tournament.
“I can’t say enough good about it,” he said. “I was completely wrong about it in the beginning, and I’m so happy I got involved.”
Schmidt said he had already talked with other coaches who didn’t participate this year but plan to next year. The word is going to spread about the success and support of this tournament, he said.
“I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger with leaps and bounds.”
The morning came to a crescendo as Highlands took on Southern in the finals. Fans that had been spread out among the lanes all morning gathered in to focus on the four bowlers. Joining Thomas and Shelton from Highlands were Dallas Derringer and Nathan Burnett from Southern.
The back-and-forth was intense as both teams displayed the skill and focus that earned them a spot in the finals. In the end, Southern prevailed, 191-169. The teams had spurred each other on to their best scores of the day.
All of the tournament bowlers gathered for a group photo, and all who competed in the quarter finals and above got their name called to receive an award, amid snapping cameras, from KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett.
Still, just to be here was a victory. Not only for the athletes, but the families, the coaches, the tournament organizers, the friends who came to watch. Who knew that knocking bowling pins down could raise so many people up?
The bowlers displayed “outstanding sportsmanship,” Bridenbaugh said, and set an example for a lot of athletes. She pointed out that at the end of the tournament, Thomas immediately went to Derringer, shook his hand and hugged him.
I didn’t catch those gestures. But I did hear Thomas after he had walked away from the lane toward those who had been cheering him on.
“Second place. That’s OK,” he said with the enthusiasm the crowd had come to expect and appreciate.
Yes, Parker Thomas. That’s OK. That is so much more than OK.
For complete results of the unified bowling tournament, click here.
KHSAA offers an online presentation for those interested in learning more about unified bowling, including information about how to get started at your school, here.
Top photo by Tim Webb/KHSAA