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The City Journals

Murray High unified soccer team gets silver at state, brings inclusion to school

Nov 22, 2021 12:09PM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High’s unified soccer team plays the Skyline Eagles Oct. 8 to qualify for the state finals, which were held at Rio Tinto stadium. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Murray High senior Emmie Brinton shot lots of goals at her first tournament of the unified sports season.

“Soccer—I love it,” she said at the last practice before the state tournament. “I like to practice kicking hard and the feeling I get when I’m scoring goals.”

Her teammate, senior Caden Stackhouse, who has played on the team four years, said he likes the footwork and friends.

“I made friends with Ali (Abdulrahman); he’s nice,” he said. “I want 20 goals.”

The two and the rest of Murray’s unified team put their grit and resiliency to the test as most of the state tournament games were held in the pouring rain Oct. 8-9. Despite the inclement weather at the state finals, Murray High cheer squad cheered on the team.

Unified soccer is a UHSAA-sanctioned sport supported by Special Olympics Utah that joins high school-age students with and without intellectual disabilities playing side-by-side on the same sports teams. In soccer, five players take to a smaller-sized field; this year, high school teams from across the state played in either competitive or player development divisions. 

Through playing unified sports, students build friendships and inclusiveness as well as to improve sports skills, said Unified Champion Schools manager Courtnie Worthen, who hopes all students are supported in their community to succeed and belong.

“We hope this helps to create lasting friendships,” she said. “When you’re approximate to someone who’s different than you, you learn that they are people too. You learn why they are different, and you can appreciate their differences and you can understand your similarities.”

This year’s state tournament consolation finals and finals in each of the four divisions were held at Rio Tinto for the first time, promoted by Utah First Lady Abby Cox’s statewide “Show Up” initiative. 

After a player and coach oath, an athlete, accompanied by her highway patrolman father and Gov. Spencer Cox, lit the torch. The First Lady and other community leaders had previously announced the desire to introduce the unified sports program to more schools—from 40 across the state to 100 by the 2022-23 school year—and expand it from soccer, basketball and track to more sports. Jordan Education Foundation, Salt Lake Bees, South Jordan and Mountain View Village (Riverton) Chick-fil-A franchises and the Joe and Renae Ingles family were the first to pledge their support. 

Worthen said the program isn’t just for high schools, some which also have unified sports PE classes. There also is a young athletes’ program in elementary schools and unified programs also are being introduced at the college level. 

Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator Boston Iacobazzi, who was a partner athlete for his high school and then continued to be instrumental in beginning and playing for the RSL unified program, now is reaching out to higher education institutions to support the program.

“When partners and others get to know the athletes and become more involved in accepting them at their lunch tables and proms, it changes the climate and culture,” he said. “I gained friendships and never had so much fun on any sports team or as SBO (student body) president than I did with unified sports. It is so much fun, so high energy and we just cheer, sing and dance and want everyone to succeed. Having the tournament at Rio Tinto gives these teams the same opportunities as the boys and girls high school soccer teams being hosted there.”

Junior Riannon Morrison is a peer tutor and was a partner on Murray’s 10-member team that finished second at state.

“The best thing is that no one judges anyone,” she said. “Everyone cheers on everyone.”

Sophomore Hannah Van Zutphen said it is very humbling to play on the team.

“It’s all about them, not us,” she said. “We just help bring the ball up and set them up with a good pass.”

Sophomore Jalynn Parker adds: “And we get so much back. They genuinely care. When I see Josh Davis, I say hi and he gives me a really big hug. It is so rewarding.”

Van Zutphen said it’s not cheering when they make a score or have a good kick but “it’s cheering on all the teams and giving everyone high 5s.”

That sportsmanship is something Jessie Agiriga and her co-coaches Drew Van Amen and Brady Smith emphasize.

“We encourage and motivate them and talk to them about being aware of what people do,” Agiriga said. “We want them to start filling people’s buckets and be appreciative of what people  do for them. It helps with the inclusion at our school.”

Van Amen said that it also builds a sense of community, which is part of their goal for having unified sports.

“We see sports as a way to not only help develop skills, but also to follow instructions, set goals, have peer interactions and build those relationships for our athletes,” she said. “Our partnerships are developing leadership skills and learning to collaborate with others. The biggest impact is inclusion; we want to include all students, support them and have them find success whether its sports or learning social and life skills and to have fun.”