Stephen Baker had dedicated his adult life to coaching and helping mentor the youth in Kingsport and surrounding areas of the Tri-Cities, a calling that coincided with his work at John Sevier Middle School.
A year ago, however, Baker believed he likely had reached the end of a coaching career that often spanned a trio of sports and virtually never saw an academic year pass that he didn’t coach at least two sports of Kingsport middle and high school students.
Until Nick Lingerfelt, Kingsport City Schools’s Special Education Athletic Director, offered both a unique and life-changing opportunity.
“What if,” Lingerfelt essentially asked, “we needed you to help coach unified bowling?”
Michelle Baker, Stephen’s wife, was a former Tennessee state champion bowler; the couple’s third date featured her showcasing that skill-set in an evening at the lanes that at least one half of the couple might otherwise prefer to forget.
But the chance to coach together; to impact the lives of Kingsport’s special education students in an all-new program?
“She’s got the bowling knowledge,” Stephen Baker reasoned, “and I’ve got the coaching experience.
“And I love the S.P.E.D. world and the chance for us to make an impact.”
The greater impact of the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett Unified Bowling Team may be difficult to estimate, but unassailable is the remarkable run for the group.
After a runner-up finish at the regional tournament last month in Knoxville, the team is headed this week for the state bowling tournament.
“It was every week getting together with these children who have never held a bowling ball or had the opportunity to participate in something like this and experience this kind of fun,” Michelle Baker said. “It’s been very rewarding to see their improvement, but especially their excitement. The athletes’ excitement at making the changes and improvements. To see them from when we started out, to go out and bowl a gutter ball, and when we had our last practice before State, every one of those bowlers at one point or another rolled a strike.
“It’s great seeing the accomplishment on their faces each week, and the accomplishment on the parents’ faces, too. Some of these athletes’ parents also have not had that feeling because their children have not necessarily been able to participate in a lot of things, not as much as general education athletes.”
Added Stephen Baker, “Graham Clark (the school’s legendary, all-time winningest football coach) always used the phrase ‘Striving to be excellent,’ and we see kids striving to be excellent. It reaffirms coaching, and kids want that feedback. Coaching is all about giving kids advice, but when you see them take it and see them succeed and strive for excellence, it’s a great feeling.”
Neither the feeling nor this indelible run is at its conclusion, state tournament or otherwise. The Bakers are heartened by the experience of their now-nine-member bowling squad.
There’s imminent unification coming for Dobyns-Bennett’s track and field program; other sports are on the horizon.
“Our next program to be implemented will be track and field, and that’s going to incorporate a lot of kids,” Stephen Baker, urging other Tri-Cities systems to adopt Unified Bowling in order to compete in a true regular season a year from now, said. “It’s always been amazing to see the unified portion of the state track meet.
“Now, it’s exciting to see it spreading into other team sports.”
First, though: unfinished business this weekend. Dobyns-Bennet administrators are helping to plan a send-off for the team Thursday as it embarks on this first-of-its-kind journey.
Cheer and spirit squads are expected to line the school’s corridors for these heroes’ good-luck wishes; the team’s traditional bowling team also is chasing a state title and stands as a postseason fixture in the sport.
Unity will be on display for a shared pizza party Thursday night, and competition, well, gets rolling Friday.
“We had one of our athletes with us at the regional tournament, and the minute her hand touched that trophy, she said, ‘I DID IT! I DID IT!’,” Michelle Baker recalled. “To see the pride and excitement on her face made it all worth it.
“And the athletes, they get the relationships being built as well.”
“Friday morning, we are ready to go and win a state title,” she added.