GRANDVIEW — The Grizzlies Unified soccer team played with a sportsmanship quality that empowers athletes and their partners to embody a winning spirit of teamwork achievement — both on the field and beyond the lines.
Those engaging talents were exhibited during a round robin tournament at Rich Leenhouts Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s just incredible to watch on the field… the sportsmanship. If somebody falls over, there’s always someone there to quickly pick them up,” Unified Head Coach Hector Camacho described, prior to his team’s first game against Othello team No. 2.
Sunnyside High School’s core group of veteran athletes graduated after five years of playing together; including four, second-place Division 2 finishes and one trip to State.
As a result of their team’s celebrated success over the past five years, there were plenty of eager students with and without intellectual disabilities, that wanted to either volunteer as participating partners or to play as athletes for the very first time.
Six co-ed athletes and six partners make up the current 12-member Unified team. Three athletes and two partners are always required to be on the field.
“There’s different personalities and everybody is different and funny,” junior partner Erica Santiago expressed.
She has been a team partner for the past two seasons.
“I like that even if we lose, they’re just happy!”
Unified soccer consists of teams in three divisions, based on skill level. Division 1 is highly competitive; Division 2 features a slight difference in skill level and Division 3 focuses on player development.
“For us, this is a rebuilding year… luckily, we have our two returning partners that can help guide them — they’re just incredible,” Camacho acknowledged. “We’re working on fundamentals, dribbling, taking shots, being able to pass to one another and general sportsmanship.”
11 schools that are split into two areas make up the leagues, which are evaluated to determine their abilities over four consecutive weeks of competitive, tournament play on Saturdays.
“They’re just so like supportive to each other. Once you start telling them, good job, good job, they feel so good about themselves,” junior partner Jennifer Mendez stated, speaking of the players. “Once they score a goal and celebrate, even the other team runs up them and high-fives one another!”
Games are comprised of two, 15-minute halves and a 5-minute halftime. Five athletes and two partners are on the field. Usually practice is on Fridays after school for about an hour and one half.
“These kids just need that good opportunity to participate and our partners really do a great job in making them feel comfortable,” Camacho said. “The soccer program is one of the highlights of their lives, and to represent their high school makes them feel like rock stars.”
Following tournament play and division assignment, teams will move on to District competition with an opportunity to advance to State.
During Sunnyside United’s first game, the team fell behind 3-1 to Othello team No. 2 right before halftime and from the other end of the field, “That’s alright (goalkeeper) Jose, you’re getting the hang of it,” Ronaldo Rivas loudly applauded, who kicked in the team’s first-half goal.
During the intermission, words of encouragement were happily shared as teammates strengthened friendships with a winning smile and cheerful high-fives.
The defensive play of Jose Plancarte and Dario Guizar stifled the Huskies’ offensive attack as the dynamic duo prevented any second-half goals.
Ronaldo Rivas scored his second goal late in the match to bring Sunnyside United within 3-2. When time expired, both teams cheered on and congratulated one another for a well-played and competitive game.
Right after the match, Rivas was asked about his goal scoring talents in similar fashion to his favorite soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, and he enthusiastically replied, “It felt amazing! We all try our best here.”