Train like a Sabercat: Unified Soccer

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Train like a Sabercat: Unified Soccer

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Olivia Doro

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Olivia Doro

Olivia Doro

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This column has pushed my mental and physical limits to an almost breaking point by training through morning practices with Coach Mark Morehouse and the boys’ swimming team and running timed laps with less than a minute breaks on the track with Coach Danielle Cook. It also has given me insight into how hard athletes at Fossil Ridge High School train and how they work together as a team. To end the column for the 2019 spring season, I trained with the Fossil Unified soccer team, a completely different experience from the intense teams I had previously worked with.

One of the biggest differences from the other sports I had worked with was that soccer only practiced twice a week for fifty minutes each: Monday after school from 3:10 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Wednesday during late start from 8:05 a.m. to 8:55 a.m. Practice started the same way every day—head coach Kimberly Gardner, on her third season as head coach, would gather the team up and give a briefing of what they had worked on and what they had coming up. Then, two or three kids would lead the warm-up, which consisted of a jog across the soccer field and back from sideline to sideline. Then we circled up to do stretches. We started  with arm stretches, then moved into sitting/leg stretches before Coach Gardner would yell out the drill for the day.

On day one after our warm-up we did a passing drill where we passed the ball in a four corner square and then followed our pass. I was buddied up with Ryan, so it was my job to help him when he needed it but mostly stay back. The drill was something I had done numerous times in soccer practice with my Arsenal team, and the only difference was that there was no defender in the middle of the square. After about ten minutes of the passing drill the team was split into four different groups and given colored pinny jerseys to scrimmage. Two groups, one black and one green, were given a half of the field and worked on offense and defense. Ryan and I were on offense in our half, and the rest of practice was spent scrimmaging. Once practice had ended, Coach Gardner rounded everyone up and gave last minute announcements before we put our hands in and yelled “Unified” on a three count.

Olivia Doro
Team work makes the dream work

Day two was also game day, so practice on Wednesday was started up quickly by the coaches and final announcements were given before their Senior Night game. We ran through warm-ups and then got divided into two teams, green versus black, for a full field, light scrimmage. Again I was paired up with Ryan and we played offense, working to steal the ball and pass it up. The scrimmage went by really quickly; then we were yelling “Unified” and I was done. It was the lightest and most fun team I have trained with, since the goal was not to push myself to the limits with a team that trains everyday but to have fun and play the sport for the sole purpose of playing the sport with an incredible group of athletes. That cutthroat competitive aspect was gone, and for the first time in a long time, I got to play a sport for fun, not with the looming fear of punishment at practice if we lost.

Considering I only got two days of training with the team, I interviewed Coach Gardner to get the full picture into how Unified trains and functions. The story really starts with Kelsey Thomas, a girl who was a junior in high school when Coach Gardner began coaching varsity soccer at Mountain View High School in Loveland. Thomas, now the assistant coach for Unified soccer, began managing the team and the team ended up voting her captain. When Thomas competed at Special Olympics, the whole varsity soccer team started going out to support her in the way she always supported them, and “it kind of just blossomed from there.”

The Special Olympics event at Fossil has its roots in the original event held at Northridge High School, but our school took it on knowing we could do this “better and bigger and more awesome. And that’s how we started doing the event here, and it all started with Kels.” Coach Gardner even admitted that she had started with a kind of narrow-minded view of sports, because that is what she was taught, but because of Thomas, Gardner began coaching Unified soccer along with teaching special education at Fossil.

Now, with the background of how it all began, Gardner really gave me an insight into how the team trains and how similar it is to training for competitive and school teams. “My philosophy is kids will rise to your expectations and your philosophy and what you expose them to, and that doesn’t mean just because they have special needs that doesn’t mean as a coach we don’t try to teach them. They’re out there to play soccer. They want to play soccer. So my duty is to teach them the game, ” Gardner explained. That being said, Gardner works hard to plan the drills and practices around the same things any team would work on, modifying the drills to have fewer steps so she can spend more time teaching them.

The buddy system is there to help the athletes stretch and grow, and the approach that Coach Gardner goes in with is that, “at the end of the day people are people, kids are kids. We get too hung up on ‘oh they have a disability’ or ‘oh they’re different.’ No they’re not. They’re just like us, you know? So I try to coach from that place as well.” That perspective has created one of the strongest and biggest teams at Fossil, with more than twenty athletes and buddies playing this season. As City Champions and an amazing group of individuals, the Unified soccer team truly changed how I view sports. Come and support the Unified teams in basketball, football and soccer in the 2019-2020 school year.