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South Jordan Journal

Bingham High wins state, brings awareness of Unified Sports to school

Nov 03, 2021 05:28PM ● By Julie Slama

Bingham High unified soccer team is shown on the giant screen as they march through the archway into Rio Tinto stadium for the state championship. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Bingham High wins state, brings awareness of Unified Sports to school

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

It was pouring rain during most of his state-qualifying and state tournament games, but Joe Asay was excited.

“I love sports a lot more than video games,” said the student-athlete who is playing his second season with Bingham High’s unified soccer team. “I like being outside, I like being on a team, and having fun.”

His team played well on Oct. 8 to qualify for the state finals, which he and his team were excited to play in — and win their player development division — at Rio Tinto stadium Oct. 9.

He was playing alongside junior Carter Jensen, who volunteered to become a partner athlete after learning about the sport.

“We have so much fun, and you should see the smiles on their faces,” Jensen said about the athletes on Bingham’s team. “This just brings a little bit of good in the world.”

Unified Sports is a UHSAA-sanctioned program supported by Special Olympics Utah that joins high school-age students with and without intellectual disabilities together, playing side-by-side on the same sports teams. In soccer, five players take to a smaller-sized field; this year, high school teams from across the state played in either competitive or player development divisions.

Through playing Unified Sports, students build friendships and learn inclusiveness as well as improve sports skills, said Unified Champion Schools manager Courtnie Worthen, who hopes all students are supported in their community to succeed and belong.

“We hope this helps to create lasting friendships,” she said. “When you’re approximate to someone who’s different than you, you learn that they are people too. You learn why they are different, and you can appreciate their differences and you can understand your similarities.”

This year’s state tournament consolation finals and finals in each of the four divisions were held at Rio Tinto for the first time, promoted by Utah first lady Abby Cox’s statewide “Show Up” initiative.

After a player and coach oath, an athlete, accompanied by her highway patrolman father and Gov. Spencer Cox, lit the torch. The first lady and other community leaders had previously announced the desire to introduce the Unified Sports program to more schools – from 40 across the state to 100 by the 2022-23 school year — and expand it from soccer, basketball and track to more sports.  Jordan Education Foundation, Salt Lake Bees, South Jordan and Mountain View Village (Riverton) Chick-fil-A franchises and the Joe and Renae Ingles family were the first to pledge their support.

Worthen said the program isn’t just for high schools, some of which also have Unified Sports PE classes. There is also a young athletes’ program in elementary schools, and unified programs are being introduced at the college level.

Boston Iacobazzi, Unified Champion School’s college-growth coordinator,  was a partner athlete for his high school and was then instrumental in establishing and subsequently playing for the RSL unified program,  is now reaching out to higher education institutions to support the program.

“When partners and others get to know the athletes and become more involved in accepting them at their lunch tables and proms, it changes the climate and culture,” Iacobazzi said. “I gained friendships and never had so much fun on any sports team or as SBO president than I did with unified sports. It is so much fun, so high energy and we just cheer, sing and dance and want everyone to succeed. Having the tournament at Rio Tinto gives these teams the same opportunities as the boys' and girls' high school soccer teams being hosted there.”

Bingham’s coach, Braxton Thornley, relived the final game versus Murray High, where the Miners received gold medals.

“It was a really close game; the final score was 4-3,” he said. “We scored the first goal and then we scored another goal. At one point, we were up 3-1, then they made a comeback. It was tied 3-3 for a while, but then we got that last goal.”

Thornley said the team’s strategy was “just taking quick hard shots on goal. I think those quick shots on goal is what really helped us do well at this tournament.”

He said one of his athletes is a “super big” Real Salt Lake fan so “he was so excited when we heard that we would be playing there.”

The team also hosted a regional tournament on Sept. 18, where students came out to cheer and support unified soccer and “it was a great opportunity to recruit partners,” he said.  Students from South Valley as well as South Jordan Middle School volunteered to be part of the team.

“Three of our four athletes have been together for awhile so they work really well together and our partners this year were just awesome and so supportive of our athletes. We clicked really quickly this year and that probably led to some of our success on the field,” he said.

The team was congratulated by Jordan Board of Education President Tracy Miller and Jordan School District Superintendant Anthony Godfrey, and talked to Utah’s first lady.

“It was a cool experience,” Thornley said. “We’re already looking forward to the unified basketball season.”