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The City Journals

Hunter wins state unified soccer tournament, brings more than gold to school

Nov 22, 2021 02:35PM ● By Julie Slama

In a qualifying game, Hunter High sophomore Angelly Velasquez dribbles the ball to the goal. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hunter High sophomore Angelly Velasquez loves to play soccer with her friends on her unified team.

“I love how we work together as a team,” she said. “It’s fun playing soccer together and scoring goals.”

While she scored several goals throughout her regional tournament as well as in the pouring rain at both the Oct. 8 state-qualifying and Oct. 9 state tournaments, she also likes to get together with friends to watch movies or bowl and plans to compete with them in unified basketball and unified track.

Playing alongside her is senior Dalila Luna, who helped pass the ball so her teammates could score. She also participated last spring in Hunter’s inaugural season of unified track.

“I like playing in a sport that doesn’t exclude anyone,” she said. “This brings us closer, so we have become friends and equals. Whether we win or lose, we’re having fun just playing together.”

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 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.”

Hunter’s unified soccer program, which is new this year, took first in its competitive division, rewarding each participant with a gold medal. 

John Young coaches the team.

“It’s a super group of six kids with special needs and four peers who love to play,” he said before the state tournament. “The first question when they get to school is ‘Are we practicing today?’ We’ve gone over the rules and fundamentals. We talk about sportsmanship; we cheer for other schools when a goal is scored. We give all our players a chance and set them up to be successful. They’re really excited to have a chance to play in the stadium; I’m not even sure how many have even been there before, but they know it’s a big deal.”

Alongside Young is Ashley Ellis, who is the school’s unified program coordinator and teaches a unified sports PE class during the spring in which students together can go over skills and practice.

“They really are athletes and get so excited to go and play—and to have people cheer for them,” Ellis said. “It’s the whole point of sports to see the sport in its purest form and people get excited for each other, regardless of what team they’re on, and they play to have fun. Right now, we just want to compete. If we win, awesome. If not, we just like being together and playing so we still win.”

She said the goal is to bring students together.

“Our ultimate goal is that of inclusion and to bring both student body populations of our special ed and our regular ed students together and just unite them,” Ellis said. “We want our athletes to be more visible in our school and our partners to be more accepting and understanding. The very first day of school, I had a warm, fuzzy moment because a partner and an athlete from last year were sitting down and eating lunch together. I don’t think that would have happened before.”