In new high school sport of Unified Bowling, teamwork and victory have a different look

photo by: Micah Katzenmeier/Special to Journal-World

Treven Gill of the Lawrence High Unified Bowling team competes at Lawrence's Royal Crest Lanes during the 2022 season.

There’s a new Kansas high school sport where victory doesn’t always have anything to do with a score.

It is Unified Bowling, and it officially became a part of Kansas’ high school sports scene in 2021 to give students with disabilities the opportunity to work as a team and socialize, said Annie Diederich, an assistant executive director with the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which worked with Special Olympics Kansas to get the sport off the ground and host a state championship.

Teams from across the state — including three in Douglas County — recently completed their seasons. Indeed, there were scores, there were tight competitions, and even championship medals. But Diederich said the sport also provides something — both to competitors and those who surround the support — that goes beyond the ordinary trappings of sport. It provides a reminder.

“Unified Bowling reminds everyone as to our ‘why’ for athletics and activities,” Diederich said. “And that is doing what is best for kids — all kids.”

Unified Bowling brings students with intellectual disabilities and partners together to form a team. Students with intellectual disabilities bowl frames 1,4,7 and 10, while their partners (students without intellectual disabilities) bowl frames 2,3,5,6,8,9. Most teams consist of three to five bowlers and must include a mix of students with intellectual disabilities and their partners, often called peer mentors.

The 2022 season began with practice on Sept. 26 and ended on Nov. 14 with a state tournament in Topeka. School teams were allowed to participate in four meets leading between Oct. 10 and Nov. 7 leading up to the state championships.

photo by: Micah Katzenmeier/Special to Journal-World

Jacob Daugherty of the Lawrence High Unified Bowling team competes during the 2022 season at Royal Crest Lanes in Lawrence.

For most teams, it was a season that produced both growth and memories. Ruochen Shen was the head coach for Eudora’s Unified Bowling team in 2021. Shen said sometimes the students struggled with their form, but that memories could be made at any moment.

Eudora team member Addisan Naff produced one of them in a tournament last year that has stuck with Shen. Naff bowled a strike — a not uncommon occurrence in traditional bowling — but Naff’s strike produced a reaction from the crowd that went beyond the norm. The crowd roared, cheered and gave Naff a standing ovation. It was a moment that caused Shen to make a mental note.

“That was the moment I told myself: This is why we are doing this,” Shen said. “The whole team and all the parents were cheering for her.”

Lawrence High also fields a Unified Bowling team. Royal Crest Lanes, 933 Iowa St., has hosted many tournaments and practices for both LHS and Eudora’s teams. Larry Burton is the owner of Royal Crest Lanes and head coach of the Lawrence High team. Burton quickly realized he was going to enjoy this team.

“I like the energy,” Burton said. “The kids come every day ready to bowl. There’s no attitude. It’s only excitement. It’s a lot of fun.”

Each school will, on average, have several pairs of bowlers competing in any given tournament. Each pair consists of one student with an intellectual disability and one fellow student who serves as a peer mentor.

“I joined the team because I thought it would be fun,” said Kayleigh Miller, a peer mentor on the Eudora team. “And I wanted to help the students have a good experience in sports. It’s a lot of fun. Unified Bowling really is a great experience for anyone and everyone.”

Burton, the Lawrence High coach, agreed, noting that the sport can more easily be played for a lifetime than several other popular high school sports. He said he hopes students and community members give Unified Bowling some thought in coming seasons.

“If you have a chance to come out and watch, it is really entertaining,” he said. “Unified Bowling is really something special.”

photo by: Micah Katzenmeier/Special to Journal-World

Jada Flathers of the Lawrence High Unified Bowling team competes at Lawrence’s Royal Crest Lanes during the 2022 season.

The sport is catching on with high schools across the state. Nearly 30 schools fielded teams this season. Daniel Hoschouer, who took over coaching duties at Eudora High in 2022, said he sees why it is growing.

“Unified Bowling is for anyone,” he said. “You don’t have to be an athlete, and you don’t have to be great at something. Bowling is something you can do for your whole life. We have kids in here who would never consider football or volleyball, typically, but Unified Bowling is a perfect opportunity for them to compete with everyone else.”

— Micah Katzenmeier is a Eudora High senior who wrote this article as part of an internship program with the Journal-World.

2022 Results

Unified Bowling teams from Baldwin High, Eudora High and Lawrence High all competed in regional playoff competition on Nov. 7 in Leavenworth. Eudora finished seventh in the 13-team regional with a team scored of 573. Lawrence finished ninth with a score of 528, while Baldwin finished 11th with a team score of 475.

All three teams just missed out on being one of the 15 teams to qualify for the state tournament that took place Nov. 14 in Topeka. Shawnee Mission East was crowned the state champion at that tournament.

photo by: Micah Katzenmeier/Special to Journal-World

Members of the Lawrence High Unified Bowling team gather at Lawrence’s Royal Crest lanes during the 2022 season that concluded in November.


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