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Girl Power Part 5: Different Abilities, One Unified Team

Marian Hetherly
(l to r) Buffalo Sabres Thunder players Olivia Wood, Kelley O'Donnell and Adriana Smith.

Despite the advancements delivered by Title IX legislation over the last 50 years, girls still participate in sports less than boys, and the disparity widens with the pressures of adulthood. Why does it matter? Because kids who compete do better in school, at work and throughout life. So WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a look at leveling the playing field in a series she's calling "Girl Power."

Only the coronavirus could keep 19-year-old Olivia Wood off the ice. The Kenmore East High School graduate with Down Syndrome has been playing for the co-ed Buffalo Sabres Thunder for about four years.

HETHERLY: You play against girls and guys, right?
WOOD: "Yeah."
HETHERLY: Look at that guy compared to me. I would be nervous to play against him, but you're not.
WOOD: "Nope."
HETHERLY: You're fearless.
WOOD: "Yeah."
MOTHER CHRISTIE WILLIAMS WOOD: "They call her the team goon."

Twenty-five-year-old Adriana Smith is Wood's friend, on and off the ice. The Daemen College student loves to score.

HETHERLY: How would you rate yourself as a player: pretty good, very good or awesome?
SMITH: "I think I'm...I think I'm...I think I'm awesome."
HETHERLY: Because you're a fast skater?
HETHERLY: What would you say to someone just thinking about whether to join a team?
SMITH: "Don't be scared. It's a lot of fun. Get out there skating."

The Thunder is a member of the Western New York Special Hockey Association, where players with developmental disabilities skate alongside their Mentor Coaches at the North Buffalo Rink.

"In the world of special needs, if you look at the opportunities that are available for our families, it always seems to start with parents who see that there's more than we thought," said co-founder Pam Steffan.

The league was started by Pam and Mike Steffan, the parents of a developmentally disabled young man, in 2008. Their goal is to grow teams of different ability levels to play against other teams in the United States and Canada.

"The first year we had 15 players. Now we're over 40 and at different times we've been over 50," Pam Steffan said. "That slogan that hockey is for everyone is really true."

And she did not want cost to be a barrier. Steffan said thanks to the Buffalo Sabres and other sponsors and fundraising, the cost to play has always been $100: a fraction of other hockey leagues. There is also the opportunity to travel, "like a real team."

"If we go away to Rochester, it could be a whole weekend. They go to St. Catharines, Albany, Pittsburgh. They do quite a bit of traveling," said Smith's father Michael. "I think this is good for her. The boys on the team are fantastic. It's not like they turn their backs on the girls. They help them, but they don't baby them by no means at all. "

"Olivia has met some people here, some of the mentor coaches, who are actually her age," said Williams Wood, "which is nice, because then they develop friendships and do things outside of hockey now, too."

Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Amherst Central High School's Mackensie Koch (c) steps up to bowl in her lane.

Unified sports teams at area schools also have been idled by the coronavirus.

Just this winter, Amherst Central Schools added unified bowling to its offerings. It operates a bit differently from the Thunder, which has several mentor coaches for an entire team. Advisor and Special Education Teacher Mary Baczkiewicz said each of her bowlers plays with a partner.

"The team comprises of players, and those are students that have an intellectual disability, then other students partner up with a student with a disability and they play together," she said. "It's a little more personalized, because it's one-on-one that they're playing at these matches."

Amherst was playing Williamsville North at Classic Lanes in the Town of Tonawanda the February evening WBFO stopped by.

"If you look over here, we have eight lanes. Those are matches that are actually being scored," said longtime Williamsville North teacher Dan Griener. Greiner has been coaching unified bowling for two years and unified basketball for three years. "And then we have other kids in these six lanes we're using here. They're either warming up or they're working on their skills so at some point to bowl in a match."

Greiner said he especially likes working with girl players because "they want to be coached."

"At the high school level, quite often I'd get boy athletes that felt like they kind of knew everything," he said. "The girls were always looking for, How can I get better? How can I improve? They compete just as hard as the boys. They work just as hard."

Jeff Koch's daughter Mackensie is a player on the team. She is 14 years old and has Down Syndrome. Koch said bowling comes in addition to baseball and basketball.

"She does really well in school, too. She's always high honors," Koch said. "She works really hard. She stays focused. She wants to do the best she can do."

Koch said Mackensie is socially more outgoing because of sports.

"She'll find someone to hang out with and try to see what they're doing and see if she can join in," he said. "She's a mover and shaker."

Just then, Mackensie finished up her game.

HETHERLY: How did you bowl?
KOCH: "Really good."
HETHERLY: What was your score?
KOCH: "Ahh...59."
HETHERLY: Is that good for you?
KOCH: "Oh yeah."
HETHERLY: Your Dad tells me you're busy with a few sports. How do you manage all that with school?
KOCH: "It's a lot of energy."
HETHERLY: But you like it.
KOCH: "I love it."

Williamsville North senior Lauren Robertson is a first-time bowling partner to another player with Down Syndrome.

"I thought it would be a new, fun opportunity spending time with all of them. It makes me happy. Everyone makes friendships," Robertson said.

Jennifer Higgins came out of retirement to coach Amherst's team.

"It's almost more rewarding sometimes than my previous varsity experience," Higgins said. "These kids, whether they're the athlete or the partner, nobody is a true bowler. They make progress every single day. Every single day we celebrate some new accomplishment of somebody and that is just fun to see."

Higgins said it is just one more of the growing number of opportunities for girls of any ability to play sports.

"They need this socialization and it's exactly what they're getting," Higgins said. "It's not really about bowling. Bowling just brings it all together."

Before the coronavirus hit, about 89,000 female high school students were participating on more than 5,000 modified sports teams across the state, according to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

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