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Midvale Journal

Unified soccer gives Hartman a place to shine

Feb 03, 2022 03:32PM ● By Julie Slama

After Hillcrest High’s unified team scored against Tooele High in the final Salt Lake regional tournament game in May 2021, Hillcrest’s then peer partner Max Lapore (32) celebrates with his then teammate, Jaden Hartman (28). (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

This spring will mark two years since Hillcrest High School graduate Jaden Hartman tried out for Real Salt Lake Unified team and he has yet to play another Major Soccer League unified team.

“Our games haven’t happened because of COVID-19,” Hartman said. 

Whether this season will happen will depend on the pandemic, said RSL Unified coach Jenna Holland.

“We’re moving forward preparing, but we’re following the MLS and Special Olympic guidelines because these players with special abilities are more vulnerable,” she said. “A lot of our practices and games will depend on COVID and the weather.”

The RSL Unified Team is part of Unified Sports and the Special Olympics and participates in the Major League Soccer Unified Exchange program. 

In addition to local comp teams, RSL Unified took the field against RSL Unified Alumni Sept. 4, where Hartman’s team beat the alumni 4-3.

“I was made captain that day, so I was a little nervous,” he said. “But I played OK.”

After the game, he signed his own trading cards, the first being given to his nephew. He also signed one for his high school coach, Shannon Hurst, and provided one for the school athletic director Scott Carrell to showcase at Hillcrest.

Hartman started playing soccer as a Hillcrest freshman after being cut from the baseball team.

“I made a bet with my buddy that if I didn’t make the baseball team I’d try unified soccer,” he remembered. “Nobody really knew I could play soccer, so in the first game, I took the ball, went down the field and hit a goal. Everyone was looking at me and I said, ‘What?’ They told me nobody had done that before. They didn’t know I could do that, neither did me. I realized, ‘I’m good at this.’”

It was the summer after his freshman year he went to Seattle as part of Team Utah that played in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.

“I thought at first they were joking about us going to Seattle; I wasn’t at school the day they talked to us about it,” he said, excited to learn he’d be returning to his home state where he still has family and friends. “The gold medal game is one of the biggest games that I’ve played in. We won the gold, and we were in all the newspapers.”

He still sees that medal every day in his room.

“It’s my favorite medal of all of the ones we’ve won,” he said, not mentioning he scored in that game. “It was a lot of discipline and hard work with that one, but it was a lot of fun.”

Hurst said that trip was pivotal for Hartman.

“With that opportunity to go to Seattle, it really lit a fire in him. It was a pretty sweet experience. I believe it’s something that he will remember and cherish for a while,” she said.

Hillcrest athletic director Scott Carrell also joined the team on the trip.

“Jaden was always trying to make jokes, but you can count on him for always being very competitive,” he said. “He’s there to help people as well as help the team to get a win because he wants the win. One of my favorite moments from Seattle is when we had a girl (Aubree Cooper) score her first goal and Jaden and Tanner (Cluff, who at 6-foot-8 plays on the RSL Unified alumni team) both went over and gave her big hugs because they were so excited for her. Here they were, these big guys and she was so tiny in comparison.”

While at Hillcrest, Hartman dominated a number of high school unified games, scoring hat tricks in nearly every game. He estimates he has scored “at least 200 goals” in his high school career and was captain three years.

“Ms. Hurst helped me a lot,” he said. “She would tell me to take the time to set up a shot or to not go too fast down the field for my teammates. She’d tell me to go easy sometimes if we were up so many points and other team didn’t have any or she’d put me in goal. I really miss helping my teammates get goals and if the game comes down to it, me hitting the winning goal or helping them hit it.”

Hurst said that Hartman has a lot of natural talent and a love of sports.

“That helps with his motivation to learn and having things in common with his peers,” she said. “We’d tell him to trap the ball or maybe tweak where he was passing, but he was good. He understood and he’s like a sponge; he’s very good with picking things up and learning. He has a lot of intensity and sometimes I’d have to tell him to tone it down because we were running up the score and in unified sports that’s not what you want to do. One thing with Jaden, he liked his teammates, and he was more than willing to help bring up those athletes who were at a bit of a lower level.”

Hartman said his coach also helped him off the field as well as on the basketball court.

“At school, I was getting bullied. I felt trapped so she helped me through that,” he said. “I was in her class and that was good. I played unified basketball and won two state titles before COVID hit and she coached that too.”

Hurst said that Hartman excelled at basketball too.

“Jaden’s just hungry and wants to do well. I think his love of the game fuels him and he has that desire. He’s very eager to learn and is very coachable,” she said. “Most of Hillcrest students understand and support these kids who have disabilities and their playing, but there’s always that 5 or 10% that don’t give a crap about people’s lives and feelings so I’m glad I could help him out. We put a lot of time and energy into the program.”

Carrell said that Hartman’s experience with unified sports taught him communication and teamwork skills.

“He also created a lot of friendships with people. He came by during a football game this year and said hi to just about everyone,” he said. “Special Olympics offers a lot more for kids to compete and learn they’re just as important as anyone else.”

Hartman’s teammate senior year was former Hillcrest student body president, Max Lapore; through unified sports, the two became friends.

“Jaden was one of the most passionate players and people,” he said. “Everything he did, he put 100% of himself into. I loved going on the field with him because it was amazing to see someone who would never fail to do something to the best of his ability.”

Although Hillcrest has had a pipeline of players going to RSL Unified—Cluff, Boston Iacobazzi, Maison Anderson, Addie Morley—Hartman said he first learned about the team his freshman year after RSL coach Bryan Karren approached him after a game.

“He said, ‘I’m one of the coaches on Real Unified and we really want you on the team,’” he said.

Hartman tried out in spring 2020 as a high school junior.

“We did drills, and we played a game where I made some really good plays,” he said about the two-day tryouts. “I got the call. I made the team, and I was pretty happy.”

Hartman remembers receiving his uniform—No. 4.

“When I needed to sign a contract deal, I knew I was really a professional athlete,” he said.

Now, Hartman joins his RSL teammates on the practice field in Sandy, Herriman or at the Rio Tinto Stadium a couple times per week during the season where they’ll run through drills and scrimmages. He often will lift weights or run on his own.

“I like Jaden’s attitude,” coach Holland said. “He’s so enthusiastic about everything. He’s definitely outgoing; everyone loves him. He’s excited to get on a field, he’s excited to be part of the community outreach. He just does not hold back. I’ve seen him grow from those practices in 2020 to now. His skills have improved, and his confidence has increased. When he’s out there, he’s amongst the best of them. He competes and holds his own.”

Hartman said he’s learned how much power he should have and ball placement.

“I learned where you put the ball and where you should hit it and how hard so the goalie can’t grab the ball so you can get a goal,” he said. “I have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) so sometimes learning the plays can be hard, but going over and over them helps.”

RSL Unified has provided outreach to the community, from parades to most recently helping on the fields and keeping score for the high school unified championships at Rio Tinto Stadium in October.

Since the team didn’t have a competitive season in 2020 or 2021, the players’ two-year contracts were extended, Holland said. 

“We want our players to be able to experience travel with the team and play in stadiums in front of people. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for them,” she said.

Hartman is hoping this season will bring about new opportunities, including to travel with the team and meet new people—and to score goals. He has yet to score his first goal for RSL Unified and hopes that will come this spring.

“I still like scoring goals when I have the chance,” said the former forward, now a midfielder, a position he also enjoys.

Hartman is uncertain of what his future may bring, perhaps more professional or college unified soccer, but he does know one thing: “I definitely want to keep playing. It’s fun.”