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Sandy Journal

Jordan unified soccer team finishes fourth at state, brings more to school than ribbons

Nov 15, 2021 03:11PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan High unified soccer team plays Wasatch High in qualifying game Oct. 8 before they played in the state consolation finals at Rio Tinto stadium. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Jordan High senior Steven Cummiskey was ready to play soccer.

It didn’t matter that it was pouring rain during most of his state tournament games.

“I’m excited to play, to make memories in my last year,” he said. “We have matching jerseys, a bigger team so we have more subs, and we want to win like every team here.”

Cummiskey has watched Real Salt Lake play at Rio Tinto with his grandmother and was ready for his team to win the qualifying games on Oct. 8, so he could play in the stadium Oct. 9 as a student-athlete on Jordan’s unified soccer team.

“It will be a dream to play down there,” he said. “It will be so awesome.”

Senior Brittany Luu plays as a partner student-athlete. 

“It’s fun to go out there to play,” she said. “It’s not super competitive, it’s something to do that’s active and meet more people.”

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 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.”

Jenna Fox, who co-coached Jordan’s team with Dave Mecham to a fourth-place finish at state, said she has seen the bonds from athletics stretch beyond the field and basketball court.

“I’ve seen them become closer with each other,” she said. “A lot of them are freshmen and they’re meeting their classmates for the first time, and it was difficult for them to go up and talk and meet people. But because of soccer, they’re able to and they hang out more and some eat lunch together. They have more confidence to do new things.”

Jordan’s program has grown from five participates to 15 this year.

“The students from last year have been getting more students involved, telling them how much fun they’ve had,” Fox said.

Jordan had an earlier regional tournament where they finished second; it was the first time some Jordan athletes have played unified soccer.

“I know a lot of them were nervous, but now they’re used to it, they’re more excited and are super pumped for it,” Fox said before the state tournament. “I think they enjoy being part of the team and parents reach out to me and say, ‘Thank you for holding this because I really love the fact my child can be part of something.’ It helps students feel like they’re part of this school and Special Olympics is amazing with billboards and posters—it just makes them feel like true athletes. It is awesome.”

Mecham also said before state that it’s more than the final place to these students.

“I think the kids are really excited and they definitely want to come home with gold,” he said. “I just hope no matter what, they have fun, they like it and they’re just happy to be part of something.”