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Murray High players, partners benefit from playing unified soccer

May 07, 2018 04:10PM ● Published by Julie Slama

Murray High unified soccer program gives participants a chance to further their skills and learn to play cooperatively. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Murray High sophomore Carlos Perez loves soccer.

“I sat down and starting watching soccer with my dad,” Carlos said. “I didn’t know what it was, but my dad said it was a sport and the players get to run and play a lot. So I said, I wanted to learn and my dad starting teaching me.”

Carlos got a ball and was practicing before he lost it at his grandmother’s house. But luckily, he has gotten to practice with his first-ever team in Murray High’s unified soccer program.

“I like playing defense and stopping the ball,” he said.

Murray High has two unified soccer teams and the players are split by ability, said special education teacher Jessie Agiriga, who co-coaches the team with Brady Smith.

“We have about 20 players and partners, from beginners to advanced abilities, who all want to be involved and participate in the program,” she said. “Our goal is to teach the students more skills and sportsmanship. It’s a sport where everyone can play cooperatively.”

The teams play five versus five on a smaller field, but that doesn’t affect the intensity.

“We want them to do the best they can do. The UHSAA-sanctioned rules are that we don’t have our regular high school soccer players out there, because we want the team to work together as they do under the Special Olympics. The point is that they’re fostering friendship at the same time they’re learning skills and gaining experience playing positions,” Agiriga said. 

Sophomore Elizabeth Boettcher said that she loves teaching her teammates from her experiences playing with the Murray Max soccer club.

“I love coming to spend time teaching them new skills and working together,” she said. “This team cares about each other. They’ll pat each other on the back and say, ‘good job’ even if they may get it wrong. Everyone is very supportive.”

Elizabeth said that some players are able to work on more advanced skills such as footwork or shooting while others are still holding hands with partners learning how to dribble the ball.

“It’s all fun. We’ve become friends and we’re seeing the players learn and improve,” she said.

Agiriga said that the partners learn right alongside of the players.

“They are helping the players grow and are getting as much joy playing alongside of them. They’re learning to be good role models, to help teach skills and encourage these students as they’re learning,” she said.

Murray High 2016 graduate Nate Keller returned to the school to play on the team.

“I like kicking the ball and running really fast,” he said. “This looked like fun so I wanted to play. I knew some of the members and now I’m getting to know some more kids on the team.”

Agiriga said that rules say as long as players are still affiliated with the school up to age 22, they can participate on the team. Keller is in the adult transitional services program associated with Murray High.

“We want to offer the experiences to as many students who are interested,” she said.

Last year, student fans filled the football stadium’s bleachers in support of the unified teams.

“It was just so amazing. The students filled the stands and we had so many student clubs cheering,” she said.

Seniors Caitlyn McBride and Lissette Ochoa, who were on last year’s team, said the fans at the home games were impressive. 

“We had quite a few and with more people, we definitely had more support,” Caitlyn said. “At the away games, it was just our families and then, I didn’t get as nervous.”

 Caitlyn, who knew how to play soccer before joining the unified team, said she joined because “it’s fun and energetic.” 

Lissette said that before the unified team, she played on a recreational team.

“It’s very fun to work with a good group of kids and to be able to teach them the sport,” she said, adding that she’s learned that she enjoys teaching. “It’s rewarding to get out there and play with them – and see them score.”

The unified soccer season has teams playing at least two matches every time they meet with other teams from nearby Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights to as far away as Mountain Crest High in Hyrum. The season begins in March and ends with the state tournament May 5 at Hillcrest High in Midvale. The state tournament also features a parade of athletes and a post-tournament awards gala.

“I love doing this. I get to see the students so excited and be part of the school,” Agiriga said. “I get to see a different side of them as they are playing a sport. They’re growing and gaining skills and they’re getting more competitive and pushing themselves. They’re becoming more self-confident and building their self-esteem. And both the players and partners are so excited about the games.”

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