By Gareth Kwok, Sports Editor
//It was an ordinary Thursday lunch period at Acalanes. Most students chat it up with their social circle of friends, make a frantic dash to the library to complete unfinished homework, or wait impatiently in the hot lunch line, standing by to receive a warm cooked meal. But on this November 3 afternoon, flocks of students piled into the stadium bleachers, waiting to see a short but sweet soccer game. Life-skills and learning skills students from Acalanes and Freedom High School anxiously jumped up and down on the football field, stretching out their legs and arms, as they waited for the opening whistle to blow. Once the whistle blew, it was off to the races.
The sights and sounds of this twenty minute lunchtime Unified Sports soccer game were incredible as the game turned into a shootout. Unified athletes slowly approached the goal and blasted the ball into the back of the net as goals were scored left and right by Acalanes and Freedom, ultimately creating an exciting atmosphere and a heart-warming moment for the fans, teachers, administration, and the players.
All of this is part of Acalanes’ first year of the Unified Sports program, a program designed to give life skills students and learning skills students the opportunity to compete in athletics. Currently, the program consists of ten unified athletes and nine varsity soccer players as their unified partners.
“[The program] is like every aspect of the athletic department which is doing what is best for students,” athletic director Randy Takahashi said. “This inclusion is great for students, not just inclusion meaning including life-skills kids and the learning skills students but also the participation of the varsity soccer athletes, who as I watched got such an enriching experience out of the whole season.”
According to Takahashi, he was intrigued by Freedom’s Unified Sports program, creating inspiration for establishing a future program for Acalanes.
“Unified Sports has been something that’s been happening in the state of California for four to five years now,” Takahashi said. “Other schools and districts have started doing it but not a lot. We, the district, decided it was time to get involved. We met at a district meeting with Amy McNamara and the four athletic directors. We looked at how to make this happen and when we got started, I met with the entire special education department and they were enthusiastic. They were really the driving force for making this happen.”
Special education teacher and Unified Sports director Holly Thompson also explained the process of kick-starting the program.
“The process was just trying to figure out what exactly it is and do we have enough clientele to have a team for enough Unified athletes,” Thompson said. “Since we have some definite, needier athletes, we wanted to make sure (A): there’s enough interest on both sides. We definitely knew there was interest on the athlete side but not necessarily the partner side and then (B), do we have enough staffing and could we make something that would work. It was just a matter of getting all the logistics together.”
As of right now, the program is in the midst of the soccer season. In mid-February, the program will convert to basketball and after spring break in the beginning of April, the program will go back to soccer.
“For starting out, our first time having a Unified Sports program and we had eleven athletes and nine partners,” Thompson said. “Other schools start with just three to four. The next phase is basketball and I think we are going to get even more people for basketball which means we need even more partners.”
One of these unified partners is girls’ varsity goalkeeper junior Sophia Giordano. She was one of many players recommended by Takahashi.
“Mr. Takahashi was looking for varsity soccer players to help coach and connect with the students,” Giordano said. “Before my first practice with them, I went to their classroom and was introduced to all of the athletes. They were all very kind and seemed super excited about getting to play.”
Special education teacher and coach Caldann Stevens praised the unified partners, specifically their outgoing personalities.
“They picked the perfect athletes,” Stevens said. “They were so good and we could not have done it without them. They could not have been hand picked any better.”
Thompson followed up on Stevens’ point.
“I actually was really proud of the partners too because you cannot just take any person on campus and put them with one of our special-needs
kids,” Thompson said. “It really takes a unique person to be able to understand that this student does not talk but they are going to be coming over and touching you. That’s okay and that’s what they do and you just help them through it.”
The typical schedule for both the unified athletes and unified partners is a one hour practice, two days a week. By Unified Sports rule, that is the limit for the unified athletes.
“We are not allowed to do more than that,” special education teacher and coach Jasy Radmanovic said. “We are not supposed to be over-the-top competitors.”
During practices, the coaches teach the athletes the basic fundamentals of the game, all while having fun.
“We focus on a few skills such as passing, dribbling, and shooting,” Radmanovic said. “What also helps was having the partner athletes being able to model and demonstrate what is going on.”
Stevens added that getting the game of soccer to a comprehensible level is another task for the coaches.
“We modified a lot of these concepts to get them down to an understandable level,” Stevens said. “Our practices were very repetitive in terms of getting accustomed to the game. I remember our first practice was, “What even is a soccer ball?” It was the consistency of the repeat and the simplicity of the drills which they have a made a lot of progress in.”
Acalanes and Miramonte squared off against each other on October 20 for the very first Unified Soccer game. The team also competed on that November 3 in a “doubleheader,” playing Freedom at lunch at Acalanes, and then commuting over to Miramonte for an after-school contest.
“Playing with the athletes was an experience I looked forward to every week,” Giordano said. “Their excitement and positive energy was always amazing to watch and coaching them was a great time especially when it came to the games. Specifically our game versus Freedom, tons of students and parents came out to support them and the athletes were so excited to have fans watching them play. They put a lot of time and effort into it and I was really happy to see so many people come and support all of their hard work and progress.”
It is definitely no doubt; both the unified athletes and the unified partners are having an incredible amount of fun.
“I heard the partner athletes say that one of our students was absent one day,” Radmanovic said. “All the [unified] athletes had come to practice and they were all disappointed that that student was not there. I thought that was really sweet.”
For Thompson, she is proud of the overall program and the fun the unified athletes and unified partners have had.
“I was personally amazed at seeing some of these students that are non-verbal to be able to not know how to kick a soccer ball at the beginning and actually have this great left-footed kick into the goal,” Thompson said. “Because when you meet someone who is non-verbal, not that they cannot learn something but just amazing how fast they learned and picked up on it. No one left after a game or a practice without a smile on their face because you know that everyone is having a good time and everyone is enjoying themselves. You can’t not leave without a smile on your face.”