Skyline unified soccer teams place in top four at state, develop lifelong friendshipsNov 15, 2021 03:04PM ● By Julie Slama
Skyline Eagles unified team plays Murray High in a qualifying game Oct. 8 to advance to play in the state consolation game. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
It was pouring rain during most of the state qualifying games on Oct. 8, and again at the state consolation finals and finals at Rio Tinto stadium Oct. 9, yet Skyline High’s unified soccer teams had smiles on their faces.
“It’s been fun,” said junior Gabe Silva who is a student-athlete on the team. “I talked my best friend into playing with me.”
His best friend is senior Aubree Mackay, who he met this year. She is a peer tutor for his PE class.
“I said, ‘you play unified soccer, that’s so cool,’” she said. “Then he asked me to join, so I joined for him. I get to see Gabe, hang out and support unified sports to make our school community more inclusive.”
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 his high school 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.”
Skyline had about six weeks to practice skills and prepare for state competition with its two teams—one that took second at state in one division and the other took fourth in another; both of which are in the player development divisions.
They also participated in a regional competition where “our team had a blast,” said Jeff Fons, who coached the team alongside special education teacher Kelsee Kellogg.
Kellogg said that they had so many come out to participate, including two Olympus High students who volunteered to help, that “we split them up in two teams,” she said. “I love sports and have always wanted to be a coach. The kids were really stoked about getting to play unified soccer and create lasting friendships with their partners.”
Fons said that they celebrate passes, shots on goals and great plays.
“They’re cheering and celebrating each other like it’s the Olympics or they’ve cured cancer,” he said, adding that they danced right on the field at the regional tournament when they announced their names and school. “It was pure joy to see them having so much fun.”
Kellogg has those friendships on the field translate to the halls of the school.
“They give each other high-5s on campus and know they’re on the same team whether they’re playing or just at school,” she said. “It’s been great. My students see them as their new best friends; they instantly are friends for life.”