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Huskies’ unified soccer team to represent Utah at USA Games

Apr 09, 2018 12:05PM ● Published by Julie Slama

Members of Hillcrest High’s unified soccer team, pictured here after winning last year’s state title, will represent Utah at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this summer. (Photo/Julie Cluff)

Hillcrest High junior Tanner Cluff was excited when he learned Hillcrest High unified soccer team members would represent Utah at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this summer.

“I want to know what it’s like to win a gold medal like the Olympics,” Tanner said. “I’m excited, but as (Hillcrest Football) Coach (Cazzie) Brown told us, ‘take care of business every day,’ and that’s what I plan to do.”

Tanner, who was a manager for the football team under former Coach Brown and a member of the National Honors Society, said that through Hillcrest’s two unified soccer teams, he has learned the fundamentals of soccer.

“It’s a slower pace than regular ed varsity boys soccer, but it’s a better pace for me,” he said, adding that his favorite team is the Seattle Sounders since he grew up in Seattle. “It’s going to be so much fun to play back home.”

Hillcrest representing Utah will be one of nine teams from eight states to compete at the USA games, athletic director John Olsen said.

“We’ll have 10 students – five athletes and five partners who will play,” he said, adding that they were selected in part for their involvement in Hillcrest’s unified soccer program. 

The team includes Tanner, Aubreanna Cooper, Moises Gonzales, Jaden Hartman, Boston Iacobazzi, Jocelyn Lopez, Adairah Morely, Luis Rodriguez, John Ruff and Sierra Webster.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be selected to go. For some of our students, it’s the first time they’ve been on an airplane or will ever get to be a part of something like this,” Olsen said, adding that they will march in the opening and closing ceremonies, much like the Olympics that recently took place in South Korea.

Olsen, who along with coaches Shannon Hurst and Whitney Lott will accompany the team, said the team plans to live up to the Special Olympics motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“It’s a competitive model. It’s not just playing, but competing and playing well,” he said. “We could bring in incredible athletes, but instead we’re bringing their mentors — students who are dedicated and realize what a difference this makes for the athletes. We’re giving students an opportunity to play in high school sports who may not otherwise play so we don’t want to take the opportunity away from them, but instead, compete as a team.”

Hillcrest, who has hosted the state unified soccer tournament for the past five seasons and each team winning the title in recent years, was the first school to participate in Special Olympics of Utah, Olsen said. 

Special education teacher JoAnn Plant, who decided not to coach the Seattle team, said that the support on the Hillcrest High and Hillcrest Husky unified soccer teams is evident.

“Everyone feels like they’re going; they’re all very supportive,” she said. “The team will take our Hillcrest banner with them to Seattle.”

Plant said the team’s training begins with the high school unified season, which they will play teams from Alta, Bingham, Brighton, Jordan, Wasatch and others before hosting the state tournament May 5.

“We’re working on flexibility, nutrition and stamina,” she said, adding that they may have a mini-camp to practice leading up to Seattle. “Our parents and our school have proven to be supportive to these athletes.”

Lott, who is taking Plant’s place as coach in Seattle, is an aide in the special education classroom and a coach of the freshmen-sophomore girls basketball team. This is her first season with Hillcrest’s unified soccer program.

“The kids are motivated to play and realize that this is something that is life-changing; it would never happen to them without this opportunity,” she said. “It’s a big honor.”

Hurst, who teaches physical education as well as coaches the unified team and is an assistant coach for the school’s cross country team, said that their days will be packed with playing tournament games and other activities planned such as an old fashioned Fourth of July barbecue.

“We’re looking for our athletes to improve and play well, but also to have fun and enjoy this experience that may only happen once in our lifetime,” she said.

The team will be housed in University of Washington dorms and play on the collegiate soccer field. Recently, they were given Fitbits to help prepare them for the Games and measured for their uniforms, which along with the trip, are paid for by Special Olympics.

Hurst said it is the athletes who make the sport worthwhile.

“I could be having a crappy day, but then I see the smiles on their faces and see how happy they are over the littlest things and it totally changes my perspective,” she said.

Olsen agrees: “I didn’t know what to expect when I started coaching, but I quickly realized how it has changed my life and makes all the difference in the world to these kids.”

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