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Midvale Journal

Uncertainty during COVID-19 faces Hillcrest unified sports return

Oct 21, 2020 12:55PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Last winter, the state championship tournament was shut down before it could begin for unified athletes and their peers.

Gold medals were given to Hillcrest High’s unified team for the second straight year as they had won the most games that season, but their athletes were denied the chance to play soccer last spring.

That was the same for other unified soccer teams across Utah, which had hoped for a season or unified athletes who wanted to compete in spring track as spring sports were canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, officials are still looking at the uncertainty facing unified sports return.

“Right now, we’re looking at how feasible it will be to return,” Utah High School Activities Association Assistant Director Jon Oglesby said. “There are still questions out there. Right now, it’s yet to be determined as we’re seeing how fall sports are doing. We haven’t broached that topic, but we will in the next few months.”

Oglesby said he is trying to be optimist, but he is also aware of what they will be facing with athletics and possible close contact.

Unified sports are an opportunity for students, who are typically in special education classes, to partner with high school peers who mentor them in the sport so they can be successful.

Hillcrest High unified coach Shannon Hurst said it would be difficult to see another season potentially be canceled.

“Unified programs are the one source for these athletes to compete and feel like they’re part of a team,” she said. “It’s their outlet and chance to have fun and make friends with those they may not normally have the chance to interact with because of classes being different in school.”

While about 20 schools support unified soccer and track through UHSAA, unified basketball is part of Special Olympics program.

Courtnie Worthen, Unified Champion Schools for Special Olympics manager, said they plan to survey teachers and stakeholders about holding unified basketball or perhaps, introducing a fitness challenge that they can do with partners at their individual schools to reduce possible spreading of COVID-19.

“We will look at doing basketball or doing that in place of it, or possibly in addition to it,” she said. “We’re not sure what it will look like or what to expect.”

They also will consult with health officials about holding the season as well as schools about providing transportation for the teams. Worthen said that they will be following all COVID-19 safety guidelines.

This past year, 22 high school and post-high school teams (with players up to age 22) competed in basketball before the season was canceled five days before the state tournament. Typically, the teams comprise 12 to 14 athletes and partners.

“Usually, there are more athletes than partners,” Worthen said about the non-sanctioned UHSAA sport. 

Hurst said that at Hillcrest, typically the same athletes who play basketball also play unified soccer, which in the past have been split into two teams.

In 2018, Hillcrest players were selected to represent Team Utah, which not only played soccer in the Special Olympics USA Games, but captured the gold medal.

“Hillcrest is very organized, and typically holds structured practices like any other high school practice. They do well in basketball and in soccer,” Worthen said.

Oglesby also gives the Huskies kudos.

“Hillcrest has done a tremendous job celebrating unified sports,” he said.