Fields of hope: how soccer changed hearts and united a community

The Clovis Unified Soccer League was a rousing success this season that touched many lives. The first-year league featured all six schools from the TRAC and included both general education and special education students on each team. Pictured on the left is Tyra Dunning and Griffin Cota from Clovis defending Clovis West’s Gabriela Lopez. [Photo by Ron Webb]


Melisse Poole of Clovis West runs through a human tunnel made up of the student body, coaches and family members after their game against Clovis. [Photo by Ron Webb]
Melisse Poole of Clovis West runs through a human tunnel made up of the student body, coaches and family members after their game against Clovis. [Photo by Ron Webb]
By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor
paulmeadors@gmail.com
@paulmeadors

You know those precious moments in life where a community becomes so connected – so in tune of how it’s supposed to be, where stereotypes and conventional thinking melt away like snow under the warming sun? Ah yes, those are the deep breaths of life – the fresh air needed to cleanse the soul.

Well, something special has been playing out on soccer fields and in high school hallways across Clovis Unified because a tiny pebble was thrown into a big pond – a ripple-effect that reached far and wide and touched the hearts of the unexpected and countless more.

Born out of a great need and grown into a picture of inclusion to the highest degree, the Clovis Unified Soccer League integrated special education students with general education students and the results are nothing short of a miracle. Parents have been moved to tears, teachers are witnessing a spark in student’s eyes and students are being pushed out of their comfort zone. In short, a phenomenon has spread in every direction.

The league is the brainchild of Clovis North special education teacher Roman Gonzalez and set about when Gonzalez and two special ed and two general ed students traveled to the East Coast to get a look at already established leagues, returned home and approached Clovis Unified administrators about starting it up. They were all in. This must happen, they said. Make it so –  and they did to thunderous applause.

Clovis special education teacher and Clovis Unified soccer coach Josh Smith celebrates a goal with Michael Paxman during a game against Clovis West. [Photo by Ron Webb]
Clovis special education teacher and Clovis Unified soccer coach Josh Smith celebrates a goal with Michael Paxman during a game against Clovis West. [Photo by Ron Webb]

All six of the Tri-River Athletic Conference high schools – Clovis, Clovis West, Clovis North, Clovis East, Buchanan and Central participated in the first-year league with games played on a shortened soccer field, three special ed students and two general ed students representing their school on the field. With six games and one final tournament on Oct. 26 at Tice Park across from Clovis West, the games were a pure joy to watch.

“Special education kids are so used to being separated,” said Josh Smith, a special education teacher at Clovis High and assistant soccer coach for Clovis Unified soccer. “We’ve been working along with administration to integrate those students with the big push being inclusion. The kids can be intimidated by people being better than them, they like to be the best and like to win just like everyone else.

When they got to watch the gen ed kick-spin around and make a shot, you see their eyes light up and think, ‘I can do that too.’”

The co-ed games are played just as you would imagine, the general education players (made from members of the soccer team and leadership classes) pass and share the ball with their special ed teammates, pushing and pleading and setting them up to score. And you know what? They do –  in bunches. It’s quite a sight to see these celebrations – complete with chest bumps, sliding, screams, hugs, and yes, even back flips courtesy of Clovis East superstar Effion Smith.

You think goal celebrations are extravagant in the World Cup? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ like a Clovis Unified Soccer celebration.

The idea was an easy sell for the general ed students on their campus – and why wouldn’t it? In this day and age where, thankfully, giving to others is on the rise – and they were ready to dive in head over feet. But, as life often does, those who set out to bless often become blessed in return.

“At first we thought it was going to be about the special ed students,” said Smith. “And it’s been more impactful on the other groups.”

Vincent Lopez of Clovis celebrates after a hard-fought game against Clovis West. Lopez was one of many Clovis Unified players who loved their time playing soccer. Lopez often times would yell “I love my teammates” after and during games. [Photo by Ron Webb]
Vincent Lopez of Clovis celebrates after a hard-fought game against Clovis West. Lopez was one of many Clovis Unified players who loved their time playing soccer. Lopez often times would yell “I love my teammates” after and during games. [Photo by Ron Webb]

It’s not uncommon to see the gen-ed students encouraging the special ed students on the field, helping them up when they fall, arm-in-arm after a game, win or lose (yep, they do keep score). Amid all the kicks and goal scoring and running, hearts are changing.

“It’s taught me so much, especially about myself,” said Clovis West senior Gianna Jager, a star player on the varsity girls’ team who is attending Fresno Pacific University on scholarship next season. “I didn’t know any of these kids before but now I’ve grown close to them and see them around class and say ‘hi’ to them all the time. Honestly, it brightens my day. They ask me questions about how my day is going. They go out of their way to talk to me and I go out of my way to do the same.”

In fact, there are stories of special ed students inviting their new gen-ed friends to birthday parties after years of nobody showing up and rejection time after time. And you know what – they show up. Can you come over for some video game playing? Sure, of course.

The power of community as its finest.

And those high school hallways, those walkways so often filled with chit-chatters and gossipers with eyes glued to cell phones? They are now bristling with high-fives, good games, atta boys, great jobs girls, and big ol’ bear hugs. The uncomfortable has now become comfortable. Awkward has turned into grace. The popular kids are mingling with those usually ignored. Surely that’s a little slice of heaven.

“Not only are the kids building relationships on the soccer field, but also in the classroom and in the school,” said Gonzalez, a lifelong special education teacher in his 17th year. “To not only see how they react to each other, but the confidence of the kids is excelling across the board, socially, academically, and vocationally – and it’s all because the kids are accepted. They’re getting recognized on campus the same ways kids are being recognized by football, basketball and baseball. That has been the best part about this.”

For Todd and Tracey Dunning, their daughter Tyra from Clovis High went from a shy, timid person in Smith’s special ed classroom, afraid to mix it up with the general ed students to belief in herself every day on the field.

“She gained more confidence, she’s learned she doesn’t have to been nice and she can steal the ball and it’s OK,” said Tracey. “It’s OK for her to be assertive and be able to stand up for herself because that’s hard for her to do.”

And wouldn’t you know it, just as Tracey answered “not yet” to the question if Tyra had scored a goal this year, she dribbled towards the goal and gasp!, could it be … this might be it … oh no, the Clovis North goalie stopped the ball before the net. A code of the Special Olympics, which was recited before each game reads: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Indeed, Tyra Dunning was brave in her attempt.

From Clovis West there’s Gideon “The Wall” Castillo, the goalie with an intense look that screams “don’t you dare come into my house and score on me.” In the team’s final game against Buchanan, he scoops up a shot on goal and throws it to a teammate, raising his arms and dabbing to his adoring fans, a group of spirit-filled students in the stands who cry for an encore and shout “The Waaaallllll!”

When Vincent Lopez of Clovis got his first goal of the season, he relished in the moment and had people rolling on the grass with laughter. The story goes that Lopez has a special relationship with the Clovis principal Denver Stairs (he watched in amazement on the first day of school when Mr. Stairs put out a car fire in the school parking lot), and when he scored the goal he made a heart signal in the air, kicked the dirt and said “Mr. Stairs that was for you!” and dedicating his goal to him. How cool is that?

Without question, Lopez also loves his coach/teacher Mr. Smith – whom he high-fives with a can’t-miss smile after a game against Clovis West: “This guy is really the best coach I’ve ever had. He helps me kick the ball and teaches me to pass to my teammates if I need to – I have my good friends with me.”

Lopez does the heart-sign thing, surely his go-to move, sharing his affection with his coach. Because, well, of course he does.

The soccer season has been such a rousing success, Clovis Unified will also begin the first annual Clovis Unified Basketball League starting in January.

Sometimes all you need is something small and it can change things. Just like a creek eventually forms a canyon, a little hope can wear down trepidation and give voice to those who were once silent.