Yesterday's rain has left muddy puddles around the grounds of Kenwood High School in Essex. Bright white lights shine on the wet grass of an athletic field that smells punchy and acidic, a mix of earthworms and an Inner Harbor algae bloom.
Slick soccer balls whoosh back and forth. Sirens and buzzers are going off as four different high school teams play simultaneously for the title of league champion. Parents, brothers, and sisters are jumping up and down, cheering their hearts out. A long-awaited autumn chill has finally touched down in Baltimore. The air is electric.
"Let's gooooo! Let's go!" shouts a group of junior varsity cheerleaders with sparkly blue and white pom-poms, all smiling ear to ear.
It could be any field in Anytown, USA. But a closer look reveals team members with limps, a few with Down Syndrome. One of the players stops in his tracks when he gets the ball. Instead of a frustrated barrage of shouts from coaches, teammates, and onlookers, everyone along the sidelines starts encouraging him: "You can do it!"
He finally kicks. The ball may not have gone as far as he would have liked, but the crowd cheers like he just scored a goal. The anxiety that was on his face turns to pride.
The scene might be unusual for the average high school soccer game, but it's par for the course for the Allied Sports program, an interscholastic high school sports league for students with disabilities in the Baltimore County Public School system.
Launched in 1994, the Allied Sports program is modeled after the Special Olympics, welcoming students with not only learning disabilities, but physical disabilities as well. Teams are co-ed, with a recommended 50-50 ratio of students with and without disabilities. There are three seasons: soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter, and softball in the spring. Eighteen of Baltimore County's 24 high schools currently offer at least one Allied sport each year.
Disabilities among Allied players run the gamut, from autism, learning disabilities, and emotional disturbances to hearing impairment and physical conditions, such as spina bifida.
At the heart of the program is the concept of "sameness," according to Ron Belinko, coordinator of the BCPS athletic department and one of the founders of the Allied program—the only one like it in the state. "We wanted to make our program exactly like the regular interscholastic program," he explains.
That means players must meet the same eligibility requirements—including keeping grades up—as all athletes and attend after-school practices several days a week. The number of Allied students playing on Allied sports teams hit 580 during the 2008-09 school year, an all-time high, Belinko says. He doesn't yet know how many students will sign up for bowling—the most popular sport—and softball, but the athletic director thinks this year may be the program's biggest yet.
The only difference between Allied and the varsity and junior varsity teams is that rules are sometimes modified to accommodate students with disabilities. For example, a student in a wheelchair may hit off a t-ball stand for softball, or, when playing a base, may have a peer helper to help him or her catch the ball.
Scoring systems are different to accommodate different ability levels. For example, before soccer season starts, all athletes are tested on skills such as passing, dribbling, and shooting. Each player receives a number based on those tests, and a team average is calculated. When a team with a higher score—most teams in soccer range between a nine and 11—plays a team with a lower score, the lower-scoring team gets the difference tacked on to their final score.
Despite the adjustments, Allied players are privy to the same gratifying benefits that come with JV and varsity school athletics. They lead pep rallies alongside the other teams, receive varsity letters at the end of each season, and attend athletic banquets. All Allied players have uniforms, and many wear their jerseys to school on game days. For students not accustomed to being in the spotlight—sometimes even being shunned because of their differences—the program has proven to be a huge self-esteem booster.
Belinko recalls Allied's first year, 1994, when it was still a pilot program available only at Kenwood and Overlea high schools. When the fall season's first pep rally came up, Overlea's Allied coach worried that his team may not be as well received as the school's varsity and junior varsity athletes.
"It was the opposite effect," Belinko says. "They got the loudest cheer. Their expressions were unbelievable—they're not used to being in the limelight."
Sara Emminger, a learning disabled 18-year-old senior at Perry Hall, has been participating in all of the Allied sports—soccer, bowling, and softball—all four years of high school, but soccer is her favorite.
"It's fun and you get to enjoy it and you don't have to get cut from the team," she says in a single breath along the sideline, still sweaty from a run down the field. She favors playing forward, but is up to play any position.
Emminger's enthusiasm is infectious. She's the type of girl, her parents say, that transforms a quick supermarket trip into a two-hour venture because she seems to know, or make friends with, everyone there.
"She loves it," Sara's father, Jim Emminger, says of the Allied teams. "It's a big accomplishment for all the kids to get out here and run around."
On the soccer field, all the kids are beaming. So are the parents (and grandparents and siblings and aunts and uncles and family friends—each player seems to have a proud entourage) gathered around the fields. There are none of the hyper-competitive spectators rooting only for their children, as at other games.
"It's like you're rooting for your team, but you can root for both," adds Emminger's mother, Linda Kocan. "You don't have that with the [mainstream] teams. We don't have the parents on the sidelines bickering. It's totally different. It's true sportsmanship."
There was a time when her mother worried that Sara—who is high-functioning socially, but has cognitive difficulties—may not be able to play mainstream school sports. This concerned her, especially since Sara's two older sisters played high school soccer, and her youngest daughter always dreamed of following in their footsteps.
"She always wanted to play. She feels like this is as important as her sisters' [games] and it is. She makes me really proud," Kocan says, choking up a little amid whistles and cheering. "They just play their little hearts out. Because they actually have the opportunity to play."
The emotional moment is interrupted by a shoe flying across the field, a midfield kick apparently gone awry. A couple of players hold their stomachs, nearly falling over with laughter. Kocan and the nine family members she's brought with her—and everyone else on the sidelines, for that matter—start laughing, which morphs into cheering and clapping. Suffice to say, it's pretty much impossible not to enjoy an Allied game.
Clad in black Adidas pants and a baseball cap, Perry Hall Allied coach Brad Kressman roams the tournament sidelines watching his players, shouting encouragements, and giving high fives when they run off the field.
The former special education teacher, now a Perry Hall physical education teacher, says he's spoiled.
"I have a really rewarding job," he says. "I have great community and great parents and the county has a great program. We're just really lucky to offer this."
He mentions one of his players, sophomore Jeff Adams, diagnosed with retinoblastoma when he was six months old. Since then, he's had one of his eyes and a brain tumor removed, and struggles to overcome numerous disabilities. A student like Jeff may not ordinarily be able to play on an organized sports team, he says.
"Some kids don't have this opportunity," Kressman says. At the end of the fall season, "we're on the same stage as the varsity football team. All our players are presented the same awards. We attend the same things. Basically, the school really rallies behind us."
Not surprisingly, some disabled students shy away from the attention that comes with being on an Allied team. Many face their own uphill battles and don't want to highlight the fact that they have disabilities or be associated with students who have more severe disabilities.
"You have to find a kid to fit the program," says Kressman. "Certain kids don't want to be a part of it. In their mind, there might be a negative connotation. It might be embarrassing to them."
Other potential Allied athletes may have never experienced organized sports before and "are just plain afraid," he says. "They're afraid of failure. A lot of times they come in not feeling like they're good."
Other students jump right in without any worries at all.
The moment Nick Cotsorodis—an affable, energetic junior with a learning disability who plays on Perry Hall's Allied soccer team—heard about the program, he wanted to be a part of it. He shrugs off any shame about being on the team.
"I know that I'm different," the 17-year-old says plainly. "But everyone is different in their own way, and no one should be made fun of for that."
The cheers his team gets on the soccer field—or in the bowling lanes or softball field—from JV and varsity teams are as real as any, he says. There is no patronizing.
"It's from the heart when they cheer," he says. "They know how hard we try. Because they wouldn't make fun of their own teammates. We're all playing for the same school."
The program is also a great way for disabled and mainstream students to mix. In some schools, the two groups live their academic lives in completely different worlds.
Shannon Connelly, a non-disabled Here-ford High School student who plays on her school's Allied team, never mixed with disabled students before she joined the team.
"I never really saw them in the hallways," she says. "But now I found out they're really cool kids—and they're actually much better soccer players than I am."
Some students, like Connelly, just like helping out—and hanging out with—their disabled peers. Others may not be good enough to make their school's mainstream teams. At Perry Hall, students must fulfill service learning hours, and volunteering with the Allied Program helps them meet that requirement. Kressman has four student assistant coaches, all non-disabled, that earn learning service hours by leading practices and stretches.
There are times when the Allied teams don't seem competitive. Belinko laughs when he thinks back to last winter's bowling season.
"You go around the bowling alley, there are 18 schools there. You ask, 'Who's winning?' And everyone says, 'We are!' As far as they're concerned, they're all winning," he says.
At other times, competition is fierce.
"Everyone has a natural instinct to want to win and compete no matter who they are," Kressman says, adding that sometimes when his Allied soccer team loses a game players can get pretty upset, even disgruntled.
"That helps teach part of life, too," he says. "We're all gonna lose at some time."
Cotsorodis recalls a soccer game last year when the other team was playing dirty. It was all the good-natured offensive player could do not to push the other players to the ground.
"I really wanted to knock people down—I really did," he says, chuckling a little. "But we couldn't."
But at the end of this year's soccer tournament, it's unclear who actually won. All four teams have gathered in the Kenwood bleachers. Each player will receive a medal. Kressman and his student assistants hand out hot dogs and Capri Suns to the Perry Hall players.
A big group of cheerleaders gathers in a line at the base of the field and starts to cheer.
"We! Are! Proud of you! Said we are of proud of you!"
The group is abuzz, mouths full of snacks, already nostalgic for the just-ended season. While the players socialize, eat, and give each other high fives, the coaches hand out medals. They're bronze, with raised etchings of sports equipment and multicolored striped ribbons.
Some players hold the medals after they put them on, asking their teammates if they're going to wear theirs to school the next day.
Emminger's not sure if she will or not. It's finally dawned on her that this is her last season of Allied soccer, and the always-bubbly senior is suddenly struggling not to cry.
The bleachers empty as students leave with their parents. Coaches make sure everyone has a ride home. Players hug each other as if they won't see each other the next day in school. Medals around their necks tomorrow or not, one thing's for sure: They'll all walk through the double doors as winners.