Posted: March 10, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

State Rep. Gregory F. Lavelle has a dream. "I've always wanted to spike a United States senator without getting arrested for it by the Secret Service," he said.

Easter Seals has every intention of letting Lavelle, a Brandywine Hundred Republican, try to make his dream come true.

It recruited him to captain a team of Republican politicians who will be taking on a team of Democratic politicians in the showcase game of the annual Easter Seals Volleyball Challenge next weekend at the University of Delaware in Newark.

U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper is on the roster of the Democratic team. If Lavelle misses his chance, it will be his own fault.

The politicians will join as many as 2,000 participants on nearly 200 teams, all playing in the tournament sponsored by the nonprofit Easter Seals of Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore to benefit its cognitive and physically disabled clientele, from infants to the elderly.

Opening ceremonies at the Carpenter Sports Center, located near the intersection of Main Street and N. College Avenue, are Saturday, March 18, at 8:45 a.m. The politicians' game begins at 9 a.m. Admission is free.

It will be interesting to see whether the Democrats and Republicans, so practiced at getting their digs in at one another, are any good at getting their digs in for the volleyball.

Lavelle himself has been talking more trash than the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. He named the Republican team "This Won't Take Long" and has his strategy all worked out.

"We're going to be counting on the Democrats to embarrass themselves," he said.

The Democrats are taking a more basic approach. "I'm not sure we have a strategy except to survive," said Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., who is the team captain.

State Rep. Valerie J. Longhurst, a Bear Democrat on the team, promised there would be a surprise -- something to do with the t-shirts for the players.

Longhurst used to coach junior high volleyball, so she is keeping a close eye on training, particularly because a lot of the Democrats, including herself, are of Irish heritage with a holiday to celebrate the day before.

"Hopefully everybody is not going out on St. Patrick's Day," Longhurst said. "I'll be calling them, making sure they get to bed on time."

Both political teams are going with their strengths. The Democrats hold seven of the nine statewide offices, so they recruited heavily from there. The Republicans' only base in state government is the House of Representatives, where they have 25 of the 41 seats, so their team is drawn largely from its membership.

Not that the Democrats would rub in their political advantage. "I've been talking to some party insiders," said Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, who signed up for the Democratic team. "We're thinking about throwing the game, just so the Republicans can feel like they've won something."

In addition to Carney, Carper, Denn and Longhurst, the Democrats expect to field state Reps. Helene M. Keeley, Michael P. Mulrooney, Peter C. Schwartzkopf and John J. Viola and New Castle County Council President Paul G. Clark.

The Republicans could not help noticing the absence of state Treasurer Jack A. Markell on the Democrats' Carney-captained team. "Their side of the net might not be big enough for the two of them," quipped state Rep. John C. Atkins, a Sussex County Republican who will be making the trek north to play.

Lavelle and Atkins expect to be joined on the Republican team by state Sen. Charles L. Copeland, state Reps. Joseph W. Booth, Wayne A. Smith and Robert J. Valihura Jr., National Committeeman John R. Matlusky and assorted Republican staff members. State Rep. Pamela S. Maier is coming to cheer.

When the joshing stops, the politicians are serious about why they are playing. Lavelle himself is the father of a 5-year-old son with special needs. Longhurst has been working with Easter Seals to establish a master's degree program in speech pathology, because Delaware is one of two states without one and needs it to create a larger pool of these speech specialists.

The volleyball tournament raises money through corporate donations, pledges collected by the teams, raffles and individual contributions. More information about giving is available by calling Easter Seals at 800-677-3800 or by going to the Web site.

The event brought in more that $200,000 in 2005, and the goal this year -- for the 25th annual volleyball challenge -- is $250,000. "This is really our signature fund-raising event -- and has been," said Verna W. Hensley, who is Easter Seals' public affairs vice president and knows her politics. She used to be the state director for the late U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Republican.

So Lavelle is doing more than talking trash. "I live this every day," he said.