Inaugural middle school unified soccer state tournament met by enthusiastic players, partners, fansNov 07, 2023 09:24AM ● By Julie Slama
Mountain Creek Middle takes on South Jordan Middle in the middle school unified soccer state championship game. (Photo courtesy of Jen Morphy)
It was the first year of Utah’s middle school unified soccer and Jen Morphy was on the sidelines.
She wasn’t one of athlete’s mothers, but rather a mom of a ninth-grade peer tutor, who was assisting the athletes with the ball so they could have the same opportunities to play.
“It’s a really great program, and I love that,” she said. “Through unified sports these kids are getting to do so many things.”
Unified soccer, a program of Special Olympics Utah in partnership with the Utah High School Activities Association, allows student-athletes with and without disabilities to play on the same team.
While the teams are coed and play competitively five versus five on a smaller sized soccer field for two eight-minute halves, the focus is on development of skills, friendship, cooperation and sportsmanship as often players on either team will cheer for one another.
Fourteen teams played in the inaugural state tournament, split in four divisions based upon ability, said Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator. There were about 150 student-athletes from area middle schools: Mountain Creek, South Jordan, Oquirrh Hills, Joel P. Jensen, West Jordan and Mt. Jordan—as well as from nearby Alpine and Davis school districts.
“They had a great time and loved it,” he said. “It was really cool as some of them had never played soccer before. Some were super pumped to get to wear uniforms with their school’s name on it.”
Mountain Creek teacher Karlee English said that was true of her players, who were coached by volunteer Hannah Swett.
“We have worked hard for weeks in preparation for the tournament,” she said. “Most of the kids had never even played soccer before this. By the time the tournament came most of the students understood the game and really enjoyed playing soccer. Most of all, there was a real camaraderie between the athletes and the peers they were playing with. I actually had to do a drawing for peer tutors because so many students wanted to do it.”
Morphy’s son, Dane, has been a middle school partner athlete in unified basketball, which was introduced last winter, and with unified golf, which was new in spring 2022.
“My older daughter was a peer tutor for two years; she would say, ‘they need friends too.’ Dane knew all these kids through his sister, so he became a peer tutor and absolutely loves it. My younger daughter wants to be a peer tutor next year,” Morphy said.
As well as being a parent and a fan, Morphy also is Mountain Creek Middle School’s PTA president.
“We want opportunities to include all our students, like this. We have one kid in their class who has seizures; half of his body doesn’t work how it’s supposed to. Last year, he was so good at basketball. It was fun to see him be able to do these things in a setting that allows him to excel. With soccer, our peer tutors would shag a ball and it goes right to one of the kids in the class to dribble back up the field. Our school had two teams and what’s fun about that is you have an entire sideline cheering you on. It’s not just parents, but you have all your peers there, so it feels even bigger,” she said.
When teams scored, Morphy said, “The kids would get so excited and then the peers were happy for them and everybody on the field comes in with high-fives and hugs. The sidelines were jumping up and down. They’re so happy and love being a part of all of it.”
English said the score at the end wasn’t what was important.
“Honestly, the highlight for me was watching a young man and his peer on the opposing team (South Jordan) who were very enthusiastic in working the ball down the field and the athlete ended up getting the goal. It was so much fun to watch both teams cheer this young athlete on. It wasn’t about who won the game; it was celebrating as one in this victory for this young man as he scored. The beauty in this moment wasn’t directed by any adult to cheer for this young athlete; it just happened spontaneously,” she said.
At the same time as the middle school tournament, Iacobazzi also was overseeing 54 unified high school teams in the state playoffs.
“I’d love to get more middle schools involved and have high school soccer players help with their training. Ideally, we’d like each district to run its own middle school league then we hold one state event with teams from all the districts across the state,” he said.
Morphy said the tournament was a huge event.
“The whole community was there together—so many parents, families and so many games going on. It was fun because at Mountain Creek, it’s a tight group. Some of our students could see their friends who had gone on to high school and give them hugs and they’d cheer each other as they played,” she said.
Iacobazzi was planning surprise visits to present the medals to teams at their schools in early November.
In division A, Moose Nation from Mountain Creek got first; SoJo White of South Jordan was second; Eagles Blue from Oquirrh Hills took third; and Mt. Jordan was fourth. In division B, Joel P. Jensen Jaguars were first, SoJo Blue of South Jordan was second; Moose Stampede of Mountain Creek placed third; and Eagles white of Oquirrh Hills, fourth. In division C, local teams West Jordan won, with the Mountaineers from Mt. Jordan, second; and in division D, Joel P. Jensen Panthers were the champions. λ