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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest unified soccer team bonds to make school inclusive while bringing home state bronze medals

Nov 18, 2021 02:25PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High unified soccer celebrates winning the bronze medal at the state championship Oct. 9 at Rio Tinto stadium. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

“I like playing soccer,” said sophomore Haylee Wardle, who her coach calls “the Energizer bunny” as she plays on Hillcrest High’s unified soccer team. “Winning is my favorite, but I’ve met some friends and have had fun, hanging out with them.”

Wardle had several shots on goal at the state qualifying games on Oct. 8, and a penalty kick at the state consolation finals in Rio Tinto stadium Oct. 9.

Playing alongside her was senior Lesly Gonzalez Orduna and other partner athletes.

“We play so we can have a good time, playing a friendly game of soccer and supporting our athletes,” she said. “We bond over it and make so many memories.”

Gonzalez Orduna was one of several partner athletes from the school’s chapter of Latinos in Action, who even brought a few fans to the unified games to cheer them through the soggy weather both days at state as well as when Hillcrest won their regional tournament a week earlier.

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 Hillcrest 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.”

Special education teacher and co-coach Rebecca Remy said that she’s passionate about giving special education students the same opportunities at high school that will help develop friendships.

“Unified sports give them a sense of pride and a place to belong,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to be part of a team, with an official uniform, and to be able to use their talents, which may be athletic and not those I typically see in a classroom. It gives these students a chance to develop relationships outside of class and be a part of their community.”

Remy cited former Hillcrest unified players, Jaden Hartman and Tanner Cluff, who have graduated and now play for RSL’s unified soccer team. They volunteered at the state tournament to keep score.

Those were two of the players who health and PE teacher and co-coach Shannon Hurst has had over the past seven years—in addition to the current team. She goes over the basics with her team: “You can never get too much practice passing, stopping the ball and shooting.”

“We’ve definitely improved over the course of a couple weeks, and they listened during half-times to make adjustments,” Hurst said.

In one qualifying game, she told her team: “JR (Rugg) is hungry; he wants a hat trick. Keep up the intensity.” In another, she told them, “Go and have fun. Enjoy this.”

Hurst said that she wants the environment to be positive and fun.

“The goal is to have everyone be part of a team, make it memorable and enjoyable,” she said after the team snagged bronze at the state championship. “They understood how big a deal it was to play at Rio Tinto; they realized not everyone gets an opportunity to play there.”