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South Valley Journal

Riverton’s two unified soccer teams play in state tournament, brings opportunities of friendship to school

Nov 03, 2021 05:31PM ● By Julie Slama

Riverton High’s unified soccer team poses before playing in the state consolation finals. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Riverton High senior Alex Shields stepped up and hit the ball square on to send it flying into the goal during a penalty kick in his play-off game at Rio Tinto, which hosted the state unified soccer’s consolation finals and finals.

“Soccer is fun; I bring a lot of joy to our victories,” said the second-year player before the state qualifying tournament. “I like to play defense, but my favorite is scoring goals. I hope we win today so we can play at Rio Tinto stadium. That will be epic.”

Despite the soggy weather Oct. 8 for the qualifying games and again on Oct. 9 on the stadium field, Riverton’s two unified soccer teams showed their resiliency, grit and positive attitude as they cheered on one another – and their opponents — and took part in the parade of athletes. Their head coach, Alexis Brown, took the coach’s pledge on behalf of all coaches at the tournament.

Playing alongside Shields was senior Easton Horton, a hockey player who hadn’t played soccer since he was a youngster. He is a peer tutor at the school for a number of his school’s student-athletes.

“I really enjoy playing and spending time together,” Horton said. “They’re so excited and are always talking about it. Unified soccer means a lot to them.”

Unified Sports is a UHSAA-sanctioned program supported by Special Olympics Utah that joins high school-age students with and without intellectual disabilities together, 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 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 of which also have Unified Sports PE classes. There  is also a young athletes’ program in elementary schools, and unified programs  are being introduced at the college level.

Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator, was a partner athlete for his high school and was then instrumental in establishing and subsequently playing for the RSL unified program, is now 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,” Iacobazzi said. “I gained friendships and never had so much fun on any sports team or as SBO 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.”

Riverton’s program has grown from nine participants last year to two teams this year, one finishing fourth in the competitive division and the other placing fifth in the player development division, with five athletes and four partners on each team.

“Last year’s athletes and peer tutors told all their friends how fun it was, really advocated how much they liked it and told people, ‘hey, you should come do this with us,’” Brown said about both her athletes and partners who were recruited from the school’s hockey and football teams as well as peer tutors in her classroom. “Everyone knows it’s the athletes who dominate the show and the partners are there to support them.”

Brown, who had a brother participate in Unified Sports and who herself became a partner when she was in high school, brought Unified Sports back to Riverton, with the support of the school administration. She wanted to allow her athletes the chance to participate in the program.

Her teams prepared for the state competition with practices and scrimmages as well as competed in a regional tournament. Ball control, shooting, dribbling and passing were amongst skills she wanted them to improve upon on the field.

“We split up ourselves by saying this half are the Silverwolves and this half is Riverton, but we’re all the same team, cheering each other and celebrating our successes, on and off the field,” she said.

However, the bigger picture, Brown said, is inclusion at the school, pointing out that even their mascot came to support the team at the state tournament.

“The biggest goal overall is to build relationships and bonds with each other,” Brown said. “We want them to know what it feels like when they’re more of a part of the school, having lots of fun, being proud of themselves and what they’re doing.”