Amy Donaldson: Grantsville wins Unified Soccer title, but it wasn't the wins that transformed the student-athletes
GRANTSVILLE — Had it not been for the P.E. credit required for graduation, Daniel Gosling might not have been willing to give Unified Soccer a try.
“I wasn’t sure,” said the Grantsville junior, who participated in the state’s first interscholastic league that allowed high school students with intellectual disabilities to compete alongside other student athletes. “Coach Ciervo and my mom said it would be fun, and I needed P.E. credit. I’m neutral on sports.”
In fact, like several of his teammates, Gosling had never played organized or competitive sports before Grantsville’s athletic director, Patrick Ciervo, approached him about joining the team’s first Unified Soccer team a few months ago.
Unified Soccer is a joint endeavor of Special Olympics of Utah and the Utah High School Activities Association. The partnership created a league where special-needs students, referred to as the league’s athletes, compete on teams with regular students, knowns as the partners. In addition to several practices each week, the teams compete against each other.
The season ended with the first-ever Unified State Soccer Tournament last weekend. Hosted by Hillcrest, 144 student-athletes participated on 12 teams. The state tournament was divided into divisions, which were based on the season’s results.
Grantsville won Division 2, while Brighton was second, Mountain Crest third and Lone Peak fourth. In Division 1, Utah School for the Deaf and Blind and Skyline won the title, with Wasatch second, Bingham third and Hillcrest finishing in fourth. In Division 3, Jordan won the state title with Spanish Fork earning second, Sky View third and Alta fourth. The league was funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and support from the Special Olympics of Utah.
When Ciervo decided to organize a team at Grantsville High, he wasn’t even thinking about state championships. He was, however, thinking about the many benefits he thought his community would enjoy through supporting a team.
“We have special-needs students at our school, and I really wanted Grantsville to get involved,” he said. “I knew this was something we could really wrap our arms around.”
Ciervo felt recruiting the right mix of student-athletes was critical to the program’s success. He looked for willing participants, but also those who were leaders at the school.
He knew participating in the soccer league could be more than an enjoyable experience for a handful of students. If handled correctly, this could send a message to the students and the community that supports them that inclusion should be something society strives for everyday.
So he sought students who were both willing and high-profile. One of the first athletes he approached was all-state basketball and football player Devin Adams, who signed a basketball scholarship with Dixie State University.
“I needed a special group of regular athletes, kids that could work with and understand these kids,” Ciervo said of the partners. “When I found out Devin had done an internship with the special education (class) last year, and he’s one of our best athletes and our student body president, I thought, ‘Will I be able to recruit him to play?’ ”
Ciervo asked, and Adams didn’t hesitate.
“He said, ‘I’m in. It sounds really cool,’ ” Ciervo said. “Everyone I asked thought this was a cool idea. They found out it was great for them also.”
Adams said it was inspiring to play in the league.