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State-winning unified bowling team brings students of all backgrounds together

Coach+Michelle+Sodano+and+player+Caleb+Couch+%2811%29+embrace+during+a+unified+bowling+match.+Sodano+said+one+aspect+she+loves+about+unified+bowling+is+the+community+it+builds.
Kylie Farris
Coach Michelle Sodano and player Caleb Couch (11) embrace during a unified bowling match. Sodano said one aspect she loves about unified bowling is the community it builds.

The unified bowling team went to state on Nov. 17 against 26 other teams, and the players secured a win by playing five games, bowling a total of 651 pins. The team beat out Silver Creek (617 pins) and Pueblo Centennial (591 points) to win the championship. WHS became the first Colorado unified bowling team outside of Pueblo to win state.

Since its creation three years ago, the unified sports bowling community has continued to grow and welcome new members into its folds. In unified sports, ‘partners’ are students who help ‘athletes,’ or special ed students. They bowl in a baker-style format.

Elijah Hernandez (10) helps Kaillen Taylor (09) at Main Event (previously The Summit) in Windsor. The WHS unified bowling team won state this year. (Raven Bowman)

In the baker-style format, three or more bowlers are placed on one lane and each bowler only goes up to bowl once, which gives each player an opportunity to support their teammates through strikes and spares. But the game is about more than just the score — it’s about the support. Partner Elijah Hernandez (10) said, “The most meaningful connection is probably just, like, meeting (the players) in the first place and then getting to know them better just through a simple game.”

The team celebrates strikes and good spares and teammates chat with each other in between throws. Coaches and parents watch supportingly from the sidelines and help to encourage bowlers at practice. The team communicates with and provides support for each other every step of the way — especially the athletes.

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Coach Michelle Sodano couldn’t be more proud of how much the athletes have grown on the unified bowling team. Sodano, who has been working with unified bowling for three years and has been in special education for 11 years now, said, “You really have to build a… trust with your players to make that connection. I have to say, three years ago, when I started, I had a kid that never hugged anybody, Tray Chamberlain. And… my goal was to make that connection so that he could be a better bowler, that he was comfortable and he was safe and I actually got a hug by our fifth game, so that was a big accomplishment for me because he’s not much of a hugger to many people. So that really meant a lot to me.”

Sadie Plechaty (11) and Kaillen Taylor (09) hug during a match. Unified bowling pairs “athletes” with “partners” to increase relationships and success. (Raven Bowman)

Even when the team loses, the players know they have each other. Sodano only has one suggestion: make the connections earlier!

Sodano said, “I think us getting, maybe, started out in the middle school could get our unified program more connected. Just, start at a younger age instead of starting in high school because it really brings around our partners to our athletes; that community that maybe they’re not comfortable with. And then they come here and they bowl and they see that they’re just like anybody else. They are just like anybody else, they’re great kids and they really make those connections, and I’d love to see that connection at a younger age more, like, in the middle school.”

Unified basketball has been at WHS since the 2017-18 school year. With time, it has grown into a popular, involved and supportive program; the hope is that unified bowling will do the same with more time — and perhaps with more middle school involvement as Sodano suggested.

“My favorite part of the team is like, just getting to… know who people are and through a sport that not a lot of us know how to do in the first place,” Hernandez said.

The unified bowling team had 21 players this year — more than any previous year — and is only looking to expand in the 2024-25 season. While the bowling season is coming to an end, the unified basketball’s season is just getting started. Sign-ups will become available after Thanksgiving break. Students can check in with athletics secretary Susie Tweeton (staff) for more information.

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