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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest unified soccer players sing their way to victory at Special Olympics USA Games

Sep 20, 2018 03:53PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Team Utah waves to the crowd after being introduced at the Special Olympics USA Games. (Photo courtesy of Team Utah)

By Julie Slama | [email protected] 

“We knew no matter what, we’d go home with something so we knew it would be both competitive and fun,” Coach Whitney Lott said. 

“It was a really close game, with more intensity. At the same time, we played not just for the win, but for the love of soccer and to have fun,” mentor Jocelyn Lopez said. 

“I didn’t even know the score. I know Aubre (Cooper) had just scored. It was really hot and a long game, but after our earlier games, we wanted to take care of business,” player Tanner Cluff said. 

“Aubre scored the winning goal. When time ran out, she jumped on someone and was so happy. The coaches were screaming, rushing to the field,” mentor Boston Iacobazzi said. 

“We all were excited, jumping, screaming, having our pictures taken. It was such a big opportunity,” player Aubre Cooper said. 

That only describes part of team Utah’s gold medal win in five versus five unified soccer play at the Special Olympics USA games this summer in July. 

What happened afterward, when other teams rushed to congratulate them and burst out in the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 hit song, “I Want It That Way,” made the win really shine, team members said. 

Known throughout the Special Olympics games for bursting into spontaneous singing, Team Utah, which consisted of members of Hillcrest High’s unified soccer team, formed quick friendships with teams from across the country. Teams traded state pins, jerseys, shirts and teams quickly bonded with the Huskies, wanting to be on their bus, join them for parties in the dorms and of course, sing with them, Iacobazzi said. 

“We knew as mentors that we wanted to keep it fun and keep up our spirit, even when a couple of the games were really hard,” he said. “At one point, we just started singing. Everybody knows ‘I Want It That Way,’ so it was an easy song for our team to sing and then, everyone wanted to join us. It became a lot of fun as we’d sing all the time.” 

Utah’s unified soccer team comprises both athletes with intellectual disabilities and partners without disabilities to promote inclusivity in sports and form friendships. Utah went to the Special Olympics USA games with that in mind, said Lott, who coached with Shannon Hurst and Scott Carrell. 

After being delayed on the flight to Seattle, which was a first airplane ride or visit to Washington for some of the team members and a first time away from home for others, Lott said that it was a rough beginning for the team. 

“When we had to wait two hours for our shuttle and we were grumpy and cranky and hungry, it was a hard start,” she said. 

At the opening ceremony, Utah player Cooper bounced back and after walking through the tunnel as part of Team Utah to the University of Washington stadium full of cheering fans and families, she rushed toward the stage to meet singer Charlie Puth. 

“That was the best,” Cooper said, even though she got stopped just shy of reaching him. 

Lott said when it came time to take the field the first days, it didn’t go Utah’s way. They started with games that resulted in ties and losses. 

“Our first games were against some teams with more training, more experience, better coaches. It was obvious they had played soccer together for awhile,” she said. 

Utah’s team was coached by Lott and Hurst, both who have played and coached basketball, and Carrell, who coaches Hillcrest’s softball team.  

But Aubre said the team stuck together, even when it wasn’t going well.

“We’d just start singing. It gave everyone a hand up and helped us get in the mood,” she said.

It wasn’t until days into the tournament when the brackets were announced. Utah was placed with Arizona and Kansas, leaving Washington and California to battle it out in the other bracket. 

“We realized then, we have a shot to go home with something,” Lott said. “We won our first game and we knew we had the bronze. But it was more than winning. We wanted them to go home with something that they’ve remember positively and the singing and friendships did just that.”

Lott said that Arizona’s team, who was well matched with Utah’s, also exerted the same positive attitude and friendship. 

“They were positive and quickly became friends with our team. They ate pizza together, asked about their games and understood the philosophy of unified sports, of working as a team, encouraging the athletes to excel, not having the partners take over,” Lott said. 

Cooper said that she became close friends with the Arizona team. 

“We were always talking, riding on the bus, cheering on each other at the games. We even got each others’ numbers so we can text each other,” she said. 

Iacobazzi said the game against their new Arizona friends was the one where he had the most fun. 

“We gave each other hugs and high fives, and we were extremely happy,” he said, adding that the July 4th barbecue and fireworks followed the game. “Tanner was really happy he got a goal.” 

Cluff, who had his parents at the opening ceremony and early games, called home to say: “I scored.” 

Cluff said he was playing for his dog, Gizmo, since these were the first days he didn’t have his faithful furry friend wake him in the morning in the past three years. 

“I was missing him and my family, but I love soccer and our team and others made it fun,” he said. 

All of Utah’s players scored.

Mentor Lopez, who admits she is competitive both on the field and on the basketball court for Hillcrest, said she wanted to help her teammates. 

“I wanted to help them, not for me, but for them,” she said. “But even more, I wanted them to have fun and have a good attitude. That’s what winning in unified soccer is. At the opening ceremony, it was said best by Tim Shriver (Special Olympics chairman and son of Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver), ‘Our goal is simple: a world where there is no ‘us’ nor ‘them.’ In the dignity revolution, there is only us. A world where each one of us called by name, beautiful, sacred, able. A world where there are a million different abilities, but no disabilities.” 

Lopez said that leading up to the Special Olympics Games, she and mentor John Ruff often lead practices and drills. However, as Hillcrest High’s unified soccer teams have won the state title in the past, she said the players on the team are capable and knowledgeable about the sport. 

“Aubre is a good defender and Tanner and Addie (Morley) usually score goals. Jaden (Hartman) is a great keeper, but everyone adjusts to where they’re asked to play and works together,” she said. 

That included other team members — Moises Gonzalez and Sierra Webster — who completed the Utah team. 

“Our team was really a team on the field and off — including singing. We’d be singing on our bus and other teams would join. Everyone wanted to ride with us and we sang songs everyone knew. We sang before our games, in the dorms, afterwards on the field. It really bonded us,” Lopez said. 

Cluff said that the songs would “help us get all our sillies out” and “even the coaches sang.” 

Iacobazzi said that with all the teams joining in singing not only the Backstreet Boys’ hit, but also “Sweet Caroline” and “Party in the USA” and giving each other high fives, it really inspired the athletes — including his teammates as they played Kansas for the gold medal. 

“Jaden scored first, then Aubre in the last couple minutes,” he said about their two goals in each of the two 20-minute halves during the gold medal game. “We all went crazy when we won. It was so cool. We were going to dump water on our coaches, but they ran away. Other teams ran out to congratulates us — and of course, to sing.”