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Local high school students give smiles, goals while playing for RSL’s unified team

Jul 25, 2017 11:28AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Real Salt Lake Unified Soccer Team and Sporting Kansas City’s unified team forged a friendship when they took the field together. Sporting Kansas City travels to RSL’s field in October. (Maison Anderson/RSL Unified)

Rain poured soon after Real Salt Lake’s unified soccer team landed in Kansas City — and it didn’t stop.

RSL’s unified team, which teams up area special education and regular education students in matches, was expected to take the field April 29 after the RSL team played Sporting Kansas City. However, fear of ruining the field spread, so their time on the field got changed to walking out, uniforms drenched, and waving to the fans as they were introduced.

“It was really awesome to be on the field, looking at the crowd and exchanging our team scarves,” said RSL player Kyle “Pickles” Kareem, who also plays for Jordan High’s freshman-sophomore team.

With the game being rescheduled for indoors the next morning, it didn’t deter Pickles. Even when the team was split in half so they could play two games at the same time, Pickles remained focused.

“It was a really fun game,” Pickles said, who got his first hat trick or three goals in the same game. “I was able to anticipate what they were doing after the second goal.”

Pickles, and his team, ended up winning, but that wasn’t the point, he said.

“It’s about what you do when you play and if you have fun. We love to go out to play for the sport of it and have that experience to go against other players,” he said.

His dad and goalkeeper coach, Bryan Kareem, said that is his son’s mentality.

“He doesn’t have an agenda or an ego,” he said. “He loves to play and he cherishes the opportunity to play with other kids and to have fun while playing with his teammates. He loves this team and knows he’s never alone on this team.”

RSL unified player Maison Anderson, who is a sophomore at Hillcrest High School, agrees. He said another highlight was just being at the Major League Soccer game with the Sporting Kansas City unified team.

“We sat together and not only was it fun to get to know one another, but to cheer for the plays, not just the teams,” he said. “When we met up, we knew it was about selflessness and becoming friends unified through sports. It gives us more satisfaction to help one another. This changes our perspective on life when we’re involved on a personal level.”

A handful of local high school students participate on the co-ed RSL unified team, which is comprised of 16-year-olds to 25-year-olds throughout the state. Half of the roster is regular education students who partner with student-players who have intellectual disabilities. However, Coach Jenna Holland said that isn’t emphasized.

“We’re a team, each player helping another to improve, and we’re there for the love of the sport,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the friendships develop between our players and now between the two teams from two states. That’s the beauty of the unified team. We don’t single out one player from another.”

Holland said the unified team originated from an idea of Hillcrest High School junior Boston Iacobazzi, who ironically did not grow up playing soccer and got his first-ever goal in the Kansas City game.

“Boston went to the RSL Foundation with his idea last year and a few months later, they were asking me to coach,” Holland said, adding that she had coached Special Olympics in Ogden for the past 18 years and coached the Special Olympics USA team in 2014. “This team melts my heart. It’s such an amazing team.”

Boston, who credits special education teacher JoAnn Plant for inspiring him, has helped with Hillcrest’s unified team along with Maison and several other students who have played and cheered on their classmates. 

However Boston said when his counselor first suggested he become a peer tutor at school, he was uncertain.

“I was kind of scared, but I really fell in love with all the kids,” he said. “They have the same things and want the same goals, but we tend to prejudge them that they’re not smart or strong and I’ve learned how wrong that attitude is. I have learned more from them than they have learned from me. They treat everyone with love and kindness and we need to learn that.”

Boston, who is a sprinter for Hillcrest’s track team and will be school’s student body president in the fall, said that last year the RSL team, which included Hillcrest’s Ivan Yin, played Colorado. The team also traveled to the MLS All-Start Game in San Jose. 

This fall, RSL unified team played Hillcrest for the Husky Cup and will play other local unified teams preparing for the October 22 rematch against Sporting Kansas City unified team. Their games will include local teams — Jordan, Alta and Brighton high schools have unified teams in Canyons School District — as well as others throughout the state.

Throughout the seasons, RSL players and staff will be known to give the unified team high-fives, have Leo the lion mascot cheer for the team and Kyle Beckerman gave the players a pep talk before a game. Before the season began, they held a “signing day,” where the unified team toured the locker room, got jerseys and then, joined the team at the America First Field in Sandy for a team photo.

Maison, who has played club and high school soccer, said his first experience with the RSL unified team has been different than others.

“Before our game against Sporting Kansas City, we ate together and we went to a Kansas City Royals game. It wasn’t in groups, but individually, and we talked about sports and having fun,” he said. “It’s not just about competition; it’s about becoming friends and being there for one another.” 

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