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A first for Perkins: hosting Eastern goalball tourney

The ball in goalball has bells so the players can keep track of it.  From left, Bella Scott sends the ball; Brendan Flynn (left) and Shae Kelley go for blocks; and Kelley guards the net.

Photos by Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

The ball in goalball has bells so the players can keep track of it. From left, Bella Scott sends the ball; Brendan Flynn (left) and Shae Kelley go for blocks; and Kelley guards the net.

WATERTOWN — The significance was immeasurable.

Never before in the 185-year history of the Perkins School had it ever hosted an Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind goalball tournament.

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But that changed last month, when 60 goalball athletes representing eight schools flooded into the Howe Building Gymnasium on campus.

“In the words of our kids, I would say, ‘it’s epic,’ ” said Megan O’Connell-Copp, a third-year adaptive physical education teacher at Perkins who has been coaching the sport for 14 years.

“They’re very proud of the fact that the team was able to have a first time hosting here. It’s exciting for everyone. It’s a great thing for Perkins. It’s a great thing for our athletic program. And it’s fantastic for our kids.”

Goalball, developed in 1946 to help visually impaired World War II veterans in their rehabilitation, involves two teams of three players competing against each other.

Players wear blackout masks and attempt to score goals by rolling the ball across the court toward their opponents’ net. The ball can be blocked with any part of the body, which often results in players sprawling across the floor.

The nearly three-pound rubber ball is equipped with bells that ring as it rolls, something that aids players in locating its whereabouts.

While games are being played, complete silence is required to allow for optimal reaction time. Players also orient themselves on the court — an area approximately 20 yards in length by 10 yards wide — by using their hands to feel for boundary lines, which contain raised markings.

“Honestly, when I saw it on YouTube,” said Jade, a 17-year-old student at Perkins from Brockton, “I thought, ‘That is the easiest thing! All you have to do is find the ball and whip it down the court.’ 

“But it’s actually a really hard sport. It depends a lot on hearing. It’s not as easy as it looks. ”

For many players, the concept of competing in a team sport with a level playing field was something they never thought possible before arriving at Perkins.

“I love that it’s fair,” said Bella, a 14-year-old from Canton who is in her first year as a ninth-grader at Perkins. “Because in public school, sports weren’t really fair. They had to modify it for me.

“And goalball isn’t modified at all. It’s all equal.”

Melissa, another 14-year-old from Canton, has tried swimming and wrestling, but was similarly drawn to goalball this season.

“I like that everyone is basically the same because no one can see,” she said. “You get a feel for what it’s like to see nothing that is around you. You just have to listen.”

With visual impairment levels varying from player-to-player, O’Connell-Copp has witnessed firsthand the impact a goalball blindfold can have on participants, and the challenges three-player teams must collectively confront.

“You have to learn how to trust your teammates,” she said. “You have to learn how to communicate again. And you have to learn how to depend on your teammates. And not only that part of it, but you have to learn how to move around the court and know where you are. The whole orientation piece is very difficult.”

It can also make for a very difficult conversation when trying to describe the sport to a novice.

“I’ve tried to explain it to people before, but I couldn’t really do it justice,” said Shae, 16, of Natick. “It’s really something you have to try and experience yourself. It’s a very different experience.”

The Perkins students have competed against a slew of first-time players of late: In late January, they welcomed in Boston Bruins’ forwards Reilly Smith and Jerome Iginla. On Monday, Celtics players Kelly Olynk and Joel Anthony made a visit.

Even these experiences, however, seemed to pale in comparison to last weekend’s tourney.

“It’s a huge deal to me,” Zachary, 14, of Rehoboth said emphatically. “I’ve never been in a tournament before.”

When it was over, the Perkins boys placed eighth and the girls finished sixth; both squads featured a number of first-year players.

But the final standings were not what mattered most.

The event’s success was reflected in a variety of ways — the smiles worn by its athletes; the excitement and anxiety many battled in the days leading up to the tournament; the confidence and pride players exuded in knowing they had competed hard and tried their best; and the opportunities they had to connect with peers who are facing and defeating many of the same obstacles.

“Being on a goalball team and having this athletic experience provides them with the experience of being on a team, meeting same-age peers who are from other blind schools, and potentially having lifelong friends, O’Connell-Copp explained.

“That’s something that is really priceless.”

Paul Lazdowski can be reached at pmlazdowski@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @plazdow.
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