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Jody Genessy, Deseret News
Hillcrest student-athletes, including student body president Boston Iocabazzi, celebrate winning the Division B championship of the UHSAA/Special Olympics Unified Soccer State Championship on Saturday.
These kids work harder just to be in school and make it for an eight-hour day than any kid in the world. They deserve anything and more. —JoAnn Plant

MIDVALE — Hillcrest High student body president Boston Iacobazzi did something unusual while playing in a soccer match with his school's team over the weekend.

After the Huskies allowed a goal to West Ridge Academy, Iacobazzi smiled, enthusiastically clapped his hands and cheered for his opponent.

The senior is a competitive athlete and certainly wanted to win, but Iacobazzi is not just an ordinary teenager and this was no ordinary sports competition.

This tender moment happened as part of the Unified Soccer State Championships, which is part of a program sponsored by the Utah High School Activities Association and the Special Olympics Utah organization.

The Unified Sports program teams up high school students with normal abilities with student-athletes with intellectual disabilities — from autism to cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, mental illness to a variety of other learning difficulties — on the field at the same time for a heartwarming competition that adds to soccer’s reputation for being “the beautiful game.”

Iocabazzi has been a peer tutor for the Special Ed program at Hillcrest since the ninth grade, when JoAnn Plant, convinced him to become involved with helping to integrate students with disabilities into the school.

“The whole thing for me about Unified Sports is that it’s for everyone,” Iocabazzi said. “Everyone is supposed to have fun when they come out and be unified. It’s just like a fun time so why not cheer on your teammate (or your opponent)?”

Not only did Hillcrest’s top student leader display pure sportsmanship on the field — each team has one partner athlete on the field at a time — but as a bonus, he and his teammates won first place in Division B on his school’s football field on Saturday. Tooele won the Division A championship, while Wasatch claimed the Division B crown. In all, 14 schools fielded teams.

Hillcrest’s unified team will represent Utah in the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this summer. Ten Huskies get to go, including five athletes (students with intellectual disabilities) and five partner athletes (normal intellectual abilities).

Plant could barely contain her excitement about the program overall and the state championships. Having been involved in special education for 33 years, the soon-to-be-retiring teacher loved seeing a crowd in the stands — including cheerleaders and the school mascot — for kids who don’t always get much positive attention.

“These kids work harder just to be in school and make it for an eight-hour day than any kid in the world,” Plant said. “They deserve anything and more.”

Plant began the unified sports program at Hillcrest five years ago with John Olsen, who’s since been promoted as the school’s athletic director. The Huskies are one of two schools in the state — Murray is the other — that have enough participants to field two teams.

“It’s just all about inclusion with our kids and giving them an opportunity to be high school athletes,” said Olsen, who, like Plant, credited the school’s Latinos in Action group for being a willing co-sponsor.

Sophomore Aubrey Cooper has received invaluable support, education and love from Plant. Cooper’s confidence is up, especially now that she’s persevered to learn how to read despite learning challenges that have made it hard for her in school her whole life.

“It’s not been easy,” Plant said. “She does not give up.”

Plant smiled and said of the 5-foot-tall unified soccer player, “She can go up against a 6-foot-7 kid and come out on top.”

Cooper beamed while listening to her mentor and the team’s outgoing coach. “She got my fears over with. She helped me so much. I’ve appreciated that. I love JoAnn.”

The two then gave each other a tight squeeze before the participants all got a chance to be cheered on by attendees in a special pre-tournament parade.

“We’ve absolutely loved it,” Plant said of the unified soccer program and state championships. “No matter what crap we have to put up with on a daily basis, this makes it — it’s just unbelievable.”

Leland Christensen sat near the bench of his son’s team and just chuckled while soaking in his 16-year-old son Ezra’s enthusiasm and newfound goal-scoring talent. The Grantsville High student will participate in the upcoming unified track event, too. These sports programs help his confidence, give him a fun way to incorporate exercise into his life, allow him to learn rules and help him have fun.

“We’ve been doing the running for a long time. This is our first year doing soccer,” Leland Christensen said. “Once he gets excited about learning then he takes right off. He’s always loved ball. He really likes doing this kind of stuff. He really likes the company and everybody cheering him on.”

Ezra gave them plenty of reasons to cheer. He was excited to let people know how many goals he scored.

“Three!” he exclaimed. “In a row! I have fun. Scoring goals is the best.”

Kendra Plant, Joann’s daughter-in-law and the special-ed instructor at Mount Jordan Middle School, thoroughly enjoyed being able to watch five of her former students play for Hillcrest.

“I love it. It makes my heart — I get a little teary-eyed. It’s fun,” she said. “They get so excited when they know people are here watching them. It’s fun. It’s amazing because they’re capable of so much, and they’re so amazing. They have athletic abilities. They’re amazing in the classroom. It’s all about pushing them to do what you know they can do.”

All three of Kendra Plant’s children have volunteered as peer tutors in the special-ed program. She believes parents everywhere should encourage their children to do the same, which can help kids be involved to do things they’d like to do like their peers with normal learning abilities. These peer tutors become friends of those with learning disabilities and accompany them to classes like P.E., art and cooking so they can participate like any other kid.

“It allows the student body to absorb our kids,” she said of peer tutoring. “It’s amazing what it does.”

Kendra Plant credited Iacobazzi for being “a huge advocate for these students” who are often misunderstood or ignored. Being on the unified soccer team is just an added bonus for him.

“It’s just nice to know that you’re making a difference in someone’s life through an activity that everyone can enjoy,” he said. “Everyone loves to go out and play a sport. When you go out and do that with your friends, it’s basically just coming out and having fun.”

Iacobazzi doesn’t want to see his special-ed friends sit alone in the lunch room or remain in Ms. Plant’s classroom because they’re avoiding social interactions. He also wants to get his friends to realize that there are stigmas that simply aren’t true. He had to let a friend know that special-ed kids aren’t going to bite people. And he’s more than willing to use his unique position as a school leader to promote awareness and unity.

“I think,” Iacobazzi said, “that it is leading to inclusion — not just people with disabilities but on a broader scale, differences in religion, race, sexuality, everything, including (learning) ability, is the first step to getting that broader inclusion everywhere and not having prejudices.”

That’s why you’ll find him occasionally being as happy for an athlete wearing a different uniform. They’re all on the same team as far as he’s concerned.

“It’s time for them to come out and feel like they’re involved,” he added, “with the school and sports.”

The UHSAA organized the state championship and oversees the program, which doesn't get a lot of publicity or fan fare but goes a long way to make a group of teenagers feel better about themselves and life.

"I would say in terms of impact on the lives of student-athletes and the benefits in their lives, I think Unified Track & Field and Unified Soccer are two of the most important events we run," UHSAA assistant director Jon Ogelsby said. "Not only for the students that participate in the Special Olympics side of it, but also for the students that act as the peer mentors on the field.

"It’s really incredible the impact that both of them get in their lives when you look at a service aspect for the peer mentors and then just the opportunity to participate for the students who traditionally participate in Special Olympics-based activities."