Newburgh’s unified bowlers win title

By Mike Zummo
Posted 2/28/24

Bowling was different than anything Newburgh Free Academy special education student Thomas Crudele had done before.

Now, in his second year on the Newburgh Free Academy unified bowling team, he …

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Newburgh’s unified bowlers win title


Bowling was different than anything Newburgh Free Academy special education student Thomas Crudele had done before.

Now, in his second year on the Newburgh Free Academy unified bowling team, he has become a Section 9 champion, as the Goldbacks defeated nine other teams on Feb. 7 at Patel’s Kingston Lanes.

But that was just the cherry on top of a successful season, as the program is built on inclusion, and forms for students with and without intellectual disabilities to form connections.

“I do it because my brother is also on the team and he’s one of the athletes and I think forming that connection with him from doing a sport with him is something different that we haven’t been able to do before but because of this we’re able to,” said Newburgh senior Gianna Puleo, also the daughter of one of the team’s coaches, Christy Puleo. “Just forming different connections with people on the team, whether they’re partners or athletes.”

Unified sports teams, a program in conjunction with the Special Olympics, are made up of people of similar age and ability, making practices more fun and games more challenging. About 1.4 million people worldwide participate in unified sports.

Puleo coaches the team with Sandra Baines, and they’ve challenged the unified team to be competitive. Puleo and Baines didn’t put bumpers in the lanes to prevent gutter balls and taught them the rules of the game.

“We have higher expectations and our athletes rose to the occasion,” Baines said. “They learned the foul lines. They learned to switch sides, and they learned not to get those gutters.”

They took to it quickly, with limited frustration. Coach Puleo was amazed at how some of the athletes seemed to have a natural ability and wouldn’t have realized they had some bowling skills otherwise.

“I want to say within the first year and just a few practices, everyone got the foul line, everyone got league-style bowling, as far as the rules and where they should sit and stay in the area,” coach Puleo said. “Walking around and not eating in certain areas. I think they really grasped it very quickly.”

That impressed both coaches, as did the effect the program has had on the students with disabilities that participate in the program. Some may have limited social opportunities, and participation in the program has given them an opportunity to flex their social muscles.

“I’ve seen them come out of their shell where they’re a lot more outgoing,” coach Puleo said. “They seem to be a little more – even with their own peers in their own class – outgoing. They seem to be a little more ready to talk to people.”

That extends to the hallway where they don’t seem to be as timid and have more confidence inside the building.

That extra confidence isn’t felt only by the students with disabilities, but also their partners, as well.

“If I see anybody in the hallway that’s’ on the team, I’ll say, ‘hi,’” Gianna Puleo said. “There’s no reason to be afraid.”

Crudele is friends with Gage Szymanowicz – one of the top bowlers on the Goldbacks’ varsity bowling team. They see each other in the hallways and talk. Conversations started with bowling, have expanded from there.

“It’s now blossomed beyond bowling about other interests they have, and they found out they have other things in common,” Baines said.

Before unified bowling, Crudele didn’t do things. Joining a team was outside of his comfort zone, even if he didn’t always want to. He got mad at coach Puleo one day when she told him to stand up straight when he threw the ball.
It turned out well, as he broke 100 that day.

“It was good in a way that I did it differently,” Crudele said. “It took a while.”

And by winning the sectional championship, it showed them the hard work paid off. They played without bumpers and learned how to bowl, so when they got a score, they earned it.

“It meant even more when they broke that 100 score because they did it without a bumper,” Baines said. “It was good for the parents to see. Stop saying they can’t do it because they can if you have a higher expectation.”

Not only did they rise to the occasions and bring home a Section 9 plaque, but everyone was included.

“I felt like I was actually part of something, and people recognize that,” Gianna Puleo said. “I feel with a lot of varsity teams, they have their main players, and then the side people. I felt like I wasn’t a side person. I feel like everybody there was a main player, and everyone who’s there is important.”