Kragthorpe: Teammates bond in unified soccer
Josh Rothey jogged to the sideline after the first real soccer game of his life and declared that the competition made him feel "just like my brothers."
Witnessing the scene, Bingham High School teammate Carly Boiteux couldn't help crying.
Retelling the story a few weeks later, she cried again.
So as the first season of Utah's unified soccer program moves toward state championships in three divisions Saturday, the debate continues: Who's benefiting more from the experience, the athletes with intellectual disabilities or the partners who play alongside them?
Actually, it might be the referees, considering Todd Hyer's description of "this soul-soothing, mind-calming activity." When's the last time an official used those words after any sporting event?
With some prodding from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, unified sports are becoming established in schools. A partnership already was being formed between Special Olympics Utah and the Utah High School Activities Association, and the OCR's re-emphasis that schools provide equal opportunities for all students has helped launch programs in soccer and track and field in 30 schools this spring. In an unique pairing, Skyline has teamed with the nearby campus of the Utah School for the Deaf & Blind.
The UHSAA became the seventh state association to sanction unified sports, and others have followed.
Amy Hansen, the CEO of Special Olympics Utah, likens the development to Title IX as "a landmark moment for individuals with disabilities."
The impact has spread beyond those participants. Anyone witnessing the happiness, camaraderie and friendly spirit that pervade the soccer games would conclude that this is what high school sports are supposed to look like. "To see the joy on the players' faces was priceless," said Harut Torosyan, another UHSAA referee.
Played on a 53-yard field, the five-on-five, coed format features three players with intellectual disabilities and two partners, who are encouraged to involve their teammates and not control the game while not deferring too much to them. Some partners have to be reminded that they're allowed to score.
Brighton's Rachel Hyland focuses on her teammates, to "make sure they get the ball, and make it fun for them," she said.
Christina Shaw, the Bengals' coach, marveled about how the players have come together. "Once we let the players take charge, that's when we really saw the team bond," she said. "I can see it everyone's faces. They feel like a team."
And that's the value of unified sports, even beyond what Special Olympics can offer. "It's been amazing," said Boiteux, who's the president of Bingham's chapter of Best Buddies, a program designed for one-on-one peer tutoring and friendship. "It's really cool to see the kids have the same experiences we do."
It's fun for Rothey, who has grown up watching brothers Riley and Zach play soccer. The days of the week tend to run together in his mind, but he knows exactly when his soccer games and track meets are scheduled. And even if no scoreboards are visible, he's keeping score. Rothey reported to his brothers about how the Miners split a doubleheader last week and he posted a "hat trick" in one game.
As much as his success on the field, the social interaction and acceptance make Josh believe "he matters to somebody," said his father, Rick.
After a recent game, with some prompting from his mother, Brighton's Luke Runyan described how he scored a goal and broke a sweat, equally significant developments to him. When an observer noted the "Leave No Doubt" message on the shirt he wore under his jersey, Runyan responded, "My T-shirt usually says, 'Make It Happen.' "
That's what he and a bunch of other athletes are doing.
As a Brighton counselor who helped coach the Bengals' 2013 girls' Class 5A championship team, Shaw had no special education background and wondered what she was getting into with unified soccer. The experience "blew me away," Shaw said. "They're going to remember this the rest of their lives."
United soccer championships
The inaugural state championships for unified soccer are scheduled Saturday at Hillcrest High School, with six semifinal games at 11 a.m., followed by the title games at noon.
The 12 teams will be placed into three divisions, based on regular-season results and coaches' evaluations. Entrants include Alta, Bingham, Brighton, Grantsville, Hillcrest, Jordan, Lone Peak, Mountain Crest, Skyline/Utah School for the Deaf & Blind, Sky View, Spanish Fork and Wasatch.
The state meet for unified track and field is May 14 at Copper Hills High School, with 28 schools competing. The format consists of relays and other events, in which times and marks are combined.