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South Jordan Journal

Fun of playing together spreads throughout Bingham’s unified soccer team

Jun 14, 2021 11:22AM ● By Julie Slama

Bingham High’s unified soccer team breaks through their banner at the Salt Lake regional tournament. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

“I just wanted to come out and help them have a good experience.”

That’s what Bingham High junior Christian Jones said shortly after playing in the Salt Lake area co-ed unified soccer tournament.

When the Miners unified coach, Braxton Thornley, offered the opportunity to his English Language Arts students to become partners to the student-athletes, Jones said he volunteered to play unified soccer for the first time — even though he plays on the school lacrosse team, he set down his stick for the all-day tournament.

“I have a couple cousins who have disabilities so it’s nice to come out and help them,” Jones proclaimed, adding that he’s seen his teammates at school, but he didn’t know them well before the unified soccer season began.  “It’s fun trying to get everyone some points and see everyone do something. They’re excited to play and score and when they do, it’s so much fun and that makes it fun for everyone. I’d like to come back and play again next year.”

Thornley said that he appreciated those who came out to play this year, which during COVID-19, looked different – both in terms of numbers of students as well as the way the tournament was played. 

While those on the field had to follow the safety and health precautions as other high school teams, the tournament was set up regionally to reduce travel and have fewer teams playing at a site to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, said Courtnie Worthen, Unified Champion Schools manager who oversees the unified sports program.

At Bingham, with concerns about the virus, Thornley worried if there would be enough team members to play, but he was relieved shortly before the tournament when all five student-athletes, who are seniors, were able to play along with three partners.

“We ended up having all our athletes returning except one, so that helped that they knew each other and played well together,” he said. “Some of them sort of knew me, but since I was new last year and it had been a while , they had to get to know me as well as the partners.”

They did this with the practice they had, introducing themselves as they passed the balls. They also went over some of the basics before scrimmaging. 

“We packed a lot into that short 1.5-hour practice,” he said. “Our biggest goal was to give our students as much participation and experience and normalcy as possible – especially with these students who don’t always adjust well with changes. It was a chance for them to be with their peers, having fun, getting to have that high school experience.”

Thornley liked what he saw on the field during the tournament.

“They did incredible in their first game against Hillcrest,” he said. “We were down 3-0 in the first four minutes when we called a timeout. Then, they climbed back into it and [were able] to tie it soon after at 4-4. They were super excited.”

While the Miners eventually lost to the Huskies, they went on to challenge Murray High and Riverton High in their next games.  Still, the athletes had fun, appreciated their families’ cheering, and having the school psychologist who came with his family to support the team, Thornley said.

The partners, like Jones, had the opportunity to learn from their peers and value them, Thornley said.

“Everyone deserves the same level of respect and this gives a little bit of shine on those who aren’t always in the limelight,” he said. “Between games, I saw a lot of interaction between our athletes and partners. They’d play games, chat together over lunch. The highlight was when the athletes scored or saw their teammates score and the partners would see their excitement, their reaction. It really made the athletes’ day and in turn, made everyone else’s day.”

That is something that Worthen appreciates.

“We hope this helps to create lasting friendships, where they see each other in the hallways and say hi, eat together at lunch and have fun,” she said. “This helps to build camaraderie. I’d love to host unified dances or see clubs that help build leadership with the students and their peers.”

The Miners planned to finish the unified sports year by participating in the track and field meet in mid-May. 

Next year, unified soccer in Utah will become a fall sport, allowing year-round unified sports, with basketball in the winter and track in the spring.