The Clovis North Unified soccer team had a simple goal heading into the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle – to continue to build relationships and grow together as a team.
They certainly accomplished that and much more, as the team of nine reached the championship game after winning its first seven games before losing 1-0 in the final against Washington.
“Words can’t describe what the team experienced,” Clovis North Unified co-coach Roman Gonzalez said. “What a great experience for the kids to meet new people across the country, play a high level of soccer and build new and lasting relationships with a number of people.”
Unified soccer combines special education and general education athletes on the same co-ed team, and this is the first year the event has been included in the USA Games.
In addition, the team is the first ever unified soccer team from Clovis Unified – and the Central Valley – to represent Northern California at the national competition that is held once every four years.
Gonzalez, who teaches special education at Clovis North, pointed out numerous moments throughout the event as highlights: from goalie Chris Rij making great saves, Sean Boylan and Cody Gruen having hat tricks, and captains Will Brown and Sydney Smith making sure the team was ready on and off the field.
“But the one thing I will walk away with as being the best moment is the relationships our kids showed everyone,” Gonzalez said. “There was no difference – everyone was on the same field wearing the same uniforms playing the same game.”
CUSD began its unified sports program two years ago with unified soccer and unified basketball offered at all of its five high schools. With the addition of a team from Central Unified, the teams compete against each other in a league and also have the opportunity to play at Special Olympic tournaments.
The team qualified for the Special Olympics by winning a tournament in Ripon in October and is co-coached by Mark Tackett, a social science teacher at Clovis North.
With Gonzalez they coach the champion Granite Ridge Intermediate girls soccer team.
In addition to Gruen, Brown, Smith, Boylan and Rij, the team consisted of Emma Brown, Jordan Kriebs, Manuel Ortega and Alexa Patton.
And through all the great experiences that led up the game – including the travel, dorm life and cafeteria food – coming so close to winning a gold medal certainly stung; no one was immune to the heartache of losing a big game.
However, that’s when Gruen went over to some of the players that were crying and gave them a big hug and said, “it’s OK, no need to cry, it’s only a game.”
“What a powerful message during an intense moment,” Gonzalez said. “I’m very proud of this team of all the hard work and dedication they put into this week.”