When the beautiful game becomes the meaningful game
The fields are small, the smiles are big. The benefits are huge.
Decked in school colors, boys and girls from East Wenatchee, Wenatchee, Moses Lake, Ephrata, Sunnyside, Grandview and Quincy ignored the climbing temperature and played soccer for hours at Jaycee Stadium Saturday.
The teams gathered only a handful of players per side, some able-bodied, some with special needs, but all looking very much the part of a star of “the beautiful game.”
The combination of able-bodied players and players with special needs is what gives the sport its name. Not just soccer, but Unified Soccer, a branch of the Special Olympics. They play five dates in the spring, and much like the ‘other’ soccer, they have in-week practices (twice a week) and they have regional and state tournaments.
Regionals are next week at Othello. The top three teams at Regionals move on to state.
The players with special needs are called athletes. The able-bodied children are called partners. A partner can score a goal, but only if it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, their job is to enable the athletes’ success. In other words, co-coach Teresa Sawyer said, make the athletes look good.
One of the partners, Adriana Spindola called the experience “amazing.”
Spindola and Ana Mendoza are among the partners who also play for the Quincy High School girls’ soccer team in the fall. In the spring, they play as well as instruct the athletes.
“We try to cheer them on because they like cheering,” Spindola said. “We are there as a guide.”
Sawyer is one of the adult helpers for the Quincy team. Other coaches include Alex Bushy, MicKenzie Jimerson and Courtney Wilson.
Last week, the team faced Wenatchee (3-3 tie), Ephrata (0-0 tie) and Sunnyside (0-2 loss) during its lone home date of the season.
On Saturday, the field at Jaycee Stadium split into three smaller fields, and wherever the Jacks’ played, three Quincy High School cheerleaders appeared as well, joined by the school’s mascot, a brave young man named Hunter Harrington, who stood and paced and cheered in 90-degree weather while dressed head-to-toe in a jackrabbit suit.
The partners’ job may be to make the athletes look good, but as far as making them feel good, the game takes care of that.
“This is Salma’s second year,” Sawyer said of athlete Salma Vazquez. “Last year she was afraid of the ball. She is all over the field this year.”
Soccer can be an unfair sport, but Sawyer says that doesn’t trouble the Quincy players. They don’t pout, complain or get down on themselves when things go awry on the field. They just want to play and have fun.
“It’s the quality of the kids that we have,” Sawyer said of the team’s good sportsmanship. “We didn’t do anything to make them that way.”
Jonathan Vandyke is 21 and the goalkeeper for the team. He gave up two goals against Sunnyside, and a minute after surrendering the second goal, he was already high-fiving teammates.
Moreover, the athletes and the partners have become friends. The entire team went to prom together, Sawyer said, and they have bonded with other children at school as well, she added.
“Their parents tell us that their self-esteem just grows,” Sawyer said of the athletes.
Vandyke has played for two years. Bonnie, his mother, said her son is more confident and athletic since joining the team two years ago.
Before that, he played for the school’s ‘C’ squad, so he knew the game well before he started at Unified Soccer. He gets more playing time at Unified Soccer, his dad Dale added, while Bonnie said that Jonathan enjoys being part of a team and how his team makes him feel needed.
“And there’s also the trophies,” Jonathan said. Bonnie agreed.
“He loves the trophies,” she said.
Nineteen-year-old athlete Jazmine Estrada is Vandyke’s teammate. Energetic and enthusiastic, when asked what she liked best about the game, she answered, ‘[when] I win.”
This is Estrada’s second year, as well, and the game has changed her for the better, her mom, Rosa said. Jazmine is now more sociable, and has more friends.
On this day, Jazmine showed up to the game with a large contingent of relatives, including her stepfather and her sister, in addition to Rosa.
Rosa said she feels pride at seeing her daughter kick a ball around the field.
“She looks so happy,” she said in Spanish. “And if she’s happy, I’m happy.”
Judging by what the partners say, the happiness spreads like a 4-3-3 formation, touching all children, regardless of score.
“It’s fun to be with them, because they are so energetic,” Destiny Romero said.