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West Valley City Journal

Hunter High among teams to excel at state championship as Utah’s high school unified soccer program grows

Nov 08, 2023 10:08AM ● By Julie Slama

Hunter High smiled with their silver medals after the state unified soccer championships. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Back-to-back champions.

In any sport, it’s a difficult accomplishment. In the growing sport of unified soccer, it’s remarkable. This year, 54 unified soccer teams competed, up from 30 last year.

Yet Murray High succeeded in that achievement to defend their state championship title.

Murray High junior Mia Cox scored a goal in that title game and was receiving congratulatory hugs and high-5s afterwards from her teammates, friends and family, her principal and superintendent.

“It was exciting,” she said. “I like kicking the ball with my friends on the team because it’s fun.”

Unified soccer is a program of Special Olympics Utah in partnership with the Utah High School Activities Association that joins high school-age students with and without intellectual disabilities playing side-by-side on the same team. Five co-ed players take to a smaller-sized field in 10-minute halves playing in competitive or player development divisions. 

“We had teams from Richfield High School to up in Logan in eight divisions,” Boston Iacobazzi said, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator. “Several schools had two teams and a couple had three.”

Teams first played in local tournaments before they competed in the regional round robin competitions until the top two finishers from each division were determined. The state championships in those divisions played Oct. 10 at the Real Salt Lake stadium.

“It was close competition for a lot of the teams at both the play-offs as well as at the championships. A lot of games went into overtime and ended in PKs, which was exciting,” he said.

At the local tournament in Midvale, Hillcrest High senior Haylee Wardle was all about winning.

“Let’s go!” she encouraged her teammates. “We want to get that gold.”

Wardle, her teammates and coach Rebecca Remy watched as Hillcrest freshman Johnny Bisby brought the torch into the school’s stadium. ASL club members signed the national anthem as well as the athlete oath.

“We have a lot of Husky pride and we want everyone to feel that at our school,” Remy said, who has been an assistant during her 20 years teaching, but stepped in as head coach this year. “I love seeing the students in other areas besides academics, witnessing their sportsmanship and inclusion and the unity with their peers, and using their skills on the field. It’s great our drill, band, cheer and a bunch of different clubs and teams are supporting all the unified teams competing.”

In front of hundreds of fans at the RSL stadium, Hunter High junior Whitney Rasmussen took the athlete’s oath and sang the national anthem before joining her team to take a silver medal in their game.

For many student-athletes, it’s an opportunity to not only compete, but also to develop their skills, meet people, see old friends and belong to a team.

“It gives them a place to belong and to represent their school, just like their peers,” Iacobazzi said. 

Longtime friends Mia Jackman of Riverton High and Jaymi Bonner of Herriman High gave each other hugs when they saw each other at a tournament, which was supported by Jordan School District’s superintendent.

Mia’s dad, Jared, is thankful for unified sports.

“It gives them the chance to do things that they’re seeing typical kids do and a chance to interact with some of their peers,” he said. “It makes them feel part of the school.”

Jaymi’s mom, Jeana, feels unified sports “enriches everyone’s lives and gives us perspective. It’s about teamwork and sportsmanship. It’s not only about winning and being the best. That’s a valuable lesson that our kids are teaching us.”

Herriman High received silver medals at state.

Jordan High junior Kaitlyn Unzaga decided to play because “it’s really fun and it gets my energy out.”

She was warming up at the RSL stadium before both Jordan teams would win their division championships.

“I always play no matter what if I win or not win. I really love playing for my school with my friends,” she said. “At school, we eat lunch together and practice our kicking and defense, and how to move left and right. Then, we hang out.”

Her coach, Jenna Fox, said the school’s program has grown from five students to 22.

“The kids keep telling the incoming freshmen about it, so our numbers are getting bigger,” she said. “We have a developmental team and a more competitive one, so we’re getting all abilities playing time and we’ve got some awesome peer tutors who are playing with them. What’s fun is the kids are all friends and they respect each other. So, we play together, we go to class together, we celebrate together.”

Several Jordan High students, teachers and administrators were watching the games along with Canyons School District’s superintendent and other district administrators and school board members.

“Jordan SBOs gave us a sendoff. They lined up, creating tunnels for us to go through and we got cheered and waved off for state. That was super special for our team,” Fox said. “Having the championships at RSL, it makes them feel like royalty.”

Both Jordan teams as well as other teams, including Kearns High, that took first, were given medals by royalty — Miss Utah Sarah Sun and Miss Utah’s Teen Jaylynn Lindley along with Utah’s first lady Abby Cox. λ