When Montgomery County Public Schools announced its Corollary Sports Program in 2010 in compliance with the Fitness and Athletics Equity Act passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2008, the idea was to offer students with and without disabilities more opportunities to pursue competitive athletics.
The three sports originally introduced were unified track and field in the fall, bocce in the winter and allied softball in the spring — MCPS was the country’s first county to hold an interscholastic bocce competition, said William “Duke” Beattie, MCPS director of systemwide athletics.
Corollary sports teams, which are full-fledged varsity programs with all the same benefits as sports such as football, basketball and soccer, are expected to be comprised of 50 percent students with disabilities and 50 percent students without.
While bocce, which started with seven teams in 2010-11 and allied softball (five teams in Spring 2010) were immediately successful, unified track and field struggled to attract interest — only about 50 athletes countywide — and none of the them, Beattie said, were students with disabilities.
After months of deliberation Beattie announced at the athletic director’s year-end meeting last May that unified track and field would be replaced with team handball this fall.
“We already have track and field, if kids wanted to do track and field they could do it in the spring. We don’t want to have a corollary counterpart for something we already have, we wanted to introduce a sport that otherwise we would not have,” Beattie said. “A lot of our schools had team handball as part of the physical education curriculum so students knew the sport and liked it. And we had a ready-made facility.”
This fall Montgomery County became the nation’s first to offer interscholastic team handball, Beattie said.
Twelve schools volunteered to participate in the pilot season, which ended earlier this month: Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, Rockville, Sherwood, Walt Whitman, Seneca Valley, Quince Orchard, Northwest, Richard Montgomery, Watkins Mill, and Clarksburg.
Blair and Clarksburg won their respective divisions in a season that drew more than 225 student-athletes.
Coaches agreed that the sport gained notoriety and popularity over the summer as part of the 2012 Olympics in London.
Team handball is the most team-oriented and physically demanding corollary sport offered, Clarksburg coach Lauren Borst said, which was attractive to student-athletes.
While it might be a common assumption that corollary sports mostly benefit students with disabilities, coaches strongly disagreed.
The program offers students who otherwise would not be able to participate in varsity athletics for various reasons that range from certain mental or physical disabilities to lack of time for daily practices and games the chance to represent their respective schools in a competitive environment.
“For some kids, school ends at 2:15, this is a much more productive way to fill time. There are a lot of lessons, socially, taking turns, interpersonal skills, some of the kids have a hard time controlling their emotions,” said Whitman parent Lucy Neher, whose daughter Adrienne suffers from epilepsy. “For the general education kids, this is something that is extremely formative and will benefit them for the rest of their lives. They’re learning about tolerance and compassion and a lot of different things.”
That being said, Borst and Neher said participants did not treat each other differently because of certain disabilities — some teams had students in wheelchairs.
Teams were in competition and many students surprised themselves, Borst said, with their athletic prowess.
Neher said corollary sports are just as beneficial to parents who have never been part of such a community.
Beattie said no county championship was held this season because less than half the county participated in the season. Next year when the sport is offered at all 25 MCPS schools, the hope is to have a season-ending championships, he added.
“We had four to five times the number of participants in team handball than we had with track and field and it was very close to a 50 percent ratio of students with and without disabilities,” Beattie said. “Nobody else has handball, we’re out there alone. And we’re kind of proud of that.”