The Unified Sports program is about far more than wins and losses.
That said, winning sure feels good.
The Tooele unified soccer team beat Hillcrest 3-2 in overtime on Saturday in Midvale to win its second consecutive Division 1 state championship — an unforgettable moment for all involved.
“It was unbelievable — that’s what it’s all about,” said Tooele coach Patrick Ciervo.
Tooele trailed Hillcrest 1-0 before Paden Jolley scored about midway through the second half to tie the game for the Buffaloes. Hillcrest responded with another goal to take the lead back. But Tooele’s Adrian Garcia tied the game again with less than four minutes left to send the game to overtime.
That’s where senior Gabe Ellis became the hero. He got a pass from teammate Collin Lawrence and put the ball into the lower left corner of the goal, giving Tooele the championship.
“Just seeing Gabe win the game for us, a championship game … he’s a senior,” Ciervo said. “This was his last game. What a way of leaving his high school experience. Without Unified Sports, he would have never had that opportunity. This is something he’ll absolutely never, ever forget, and what a joy it was to see.”
Tooele defeated Wasatch 3-1 earlier Saturday to advance to the championship game.
The Unified Sports program is a joint venture of Special Olympics Utah and the Utah High School Activities Association. In unified sports, athletes both with and without intellectual disabilities compete together. The soccer teams play with four field players and a goalkeeper, with three of the five players on the field having some form of intellectual disability.
“My team, honestly, we group them all together,” Ciervo said. “They never know whether they’re part of my special-needs group or my regular rotation. I try to link them all together. We’re supposed to call them ‘athletes’ and ‘partners,’ but I consider all of my kids to be ‘athletes’ and I want them all to believe that and we try to work together that way.
“For the regular athletes — they have an opportunity to work side-by-side with these special-needs kids that they might not have an opportunity to do otherwise. It helps them grow and learn, and what a learning experience for them too. These special-needs kids have great hearts and great spirits.”
In addition to Tooele’s championship, the team from Grantsville finished fourth in Division 1 after a couple of hard-fought losses to Hillcrest and Wasatch.