Clovis North soccer to represent NorCal in 2018 Special Olympics USA Games

Nine Clovis North High School soccer players are participating in the 2018 Special Olympics in Seattle, starting July 2. The team is made up of special education and general education students and competes in the Clovis Unified Soccer League. Team members from left to right are: Emma Brown, Sydney Smith, Chris Rij, Manuel Ortega, Sean Boylan, Cody Gruen, Alexis Patton, Jordan Kriebs and Will Brown. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Nine Clovis North High School soccer players will make history as they compete in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games this July in Seattle. 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.

Unified soccer combines special education and general education athletes on the same co-ed team, and this will be the first year the event has been included in the USA Games.

“This is incredible,” says Clovis North Coach Roman Gonzalez of the program and of the team’s accomplishment in winning the qualifying tournament earlier in the school year to secure their spot.

“In a classroom, academic setting, you might notice the difference between these students, but on the field with the focus on the soccer ball, they are all competitive athletes. There is no more separation; there is no more gap,” Gonzalez said.

“In Clovis Unified, we believe every kid deserves a chance, and that includes being an athlete,” said Co-Coach Mark Tackett.

Gonzalez is a special education teacher and Tackett is a social science teacher at Clovis North. The two also coach the champion Granite Ridge Intermediate girls soccer team.

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. It was at such a tournament in Ripon in October where Clovis North Unified Soccer won and qualified for the USA Games.

The team includes Emma Brown, Will Brown, Sean Boylan, Cody Gruen, Jordan Kriebs, Manuel Ortega, Alexa Patton, Chris Rij and Sydney Smith.

“It was a really tough competition,” said team member Emma Brown. “In the final match there was one guy I remember who was such a stud. I couldn’t tell if he was a general ed or special ed athlete. He was just so good.”

That, said Coach Gonzalez, is one of the program’s main goals.

Another goal is to create an environment where understanding and relationships can form. Teammates, parents, coaches and friends all agree that has definitely occurred.

“They are a tight group. The kids hang out together outside of practice and bring other friends into the mix,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really phenomenal.”

The team will leave for the USA Games Saturday, June 30. The student-athletes will load into vans early in the morning to drive to San Jose and then fly from there to Seattle. Opening ceremonies will be held July 1 – televised live on ESPN – and soccer competition gets underway July 2. At the Games, unified soccer has a modified field and teams play five on five for two 20 minute halves. The rules require that there are three athletes (special ed) and two peers (general ed) on the field at all times.

In addition, Special Olympics USA Games has chosen to document Clovis North Unified Soccer’s journey. A crew will be filming interviews, the final practice, barbecue and packing on Thursday. They will also film the team at the games and follow their experiences. A documentary with this and footage from a select few other teams will be created and is expected to be aired later this summer.

Clovis North’s Youth Leadership Program is sending three delegates to the USA Games to volunteer and represent the school from a leadership and social point of view. Staff member Harut Fereshetyan and students Camryn McGuire and Matt Taffera will travel with the team.

“We have a very talented team,” said player Cody Gruen who recently wore star-shaped sunglasses to practice that he plans to take with him on the trip. “It’s going to be great.”