“Woohoo!” she whooped as her teammates exchanged high-fives. Some of the players have special needs; others don’t. But they all came together for the first match of the newly-formed TRAC Unified Soccer League.
“There is magic happening on the fields,” said Joe Aiello, CUSD’s director of educational services for school leadership, who has worked the past few months with the CIF Central Section and Special Olympics to develop the new program.
Co-ed teams of 12 to 14 players from all five Clovis Unified high schools and Central High are participating. The league rules specify that five players are to be on the field at a time, three of which are students with special needs.
“It’s a neat thing because we already have Special Olympics where our students with special needs are competing against each other, but this gives them a chance to be in an atmosphere that they haven’t been in before,” Aiello said as he watched the match. “We have great crowds. They’re getting to play with other student athletes that maybe they don’t have a relationship with, but they’re going to develop now and maybe have these friendships for the rest of their lives.”
Clovis West’s Isabella may have been the smallest in stature on the field — she’s a full head shorter than teammate Gia Jager, who passed the ball to her several times throughout the game — but her perpetual grin and team spirit was the biggest.
Clovis North senior Chris Garcia took multiple shots on goal during the match. His running style might not be as fluid as that of his general education teammates, but the look of determination on his face was the same.
“We have great students who are working together and really not worried about the wins and losses but being part of a team and helping each other,” Aiello said.
Games, held each Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., consist of two 25-minute halves. The student-athletes practice twice a week.
Nicole Veeser watched proudly from the sidelines as her son Joey Veeser, 17, scored a goal against Clovis North’s star player.
“It was a surprise, I think, when he got that goal. I was happy,” she said. “This is his first year and I think he likes it. … That was pretty impressive.”
Veeser said Joey loves having something to do after school three days a week, and she is happy for the opportunity for him to become friends with general education students.
“It’s good because they start socializing and getting out of their shell,” she said. “That’s the main thing, is to bring up their confidence. I think it’s great.”
Clovis North coach Mark Tackett was pleased with the crowd for his team’s first game; other coaches brought their teams out to support the Unified Soccer team.
“It was bigger than we ever could’ve imagined,” Tackett said. “We had balloons and flags and chants — the whole nine yards — which was awesome. We wanted to give the kids the whole varsity experience and that’s what they got today.”
The season will culminate with playoffs and finals Wednesday, Oct. 26 at Keith Tice Memorial Park, 8695 N. Millbrook Ave., across the street from Clovis West High School.
“We’re going to make it a big event and showcase what they’ve accomplished this year,” Aiello said. “Clovis Unified prides itself on providing top-notch athletic events for all students, and we are working to make the TRAC Unified Soccer League the model for the state of California.”