COMMUNITY SPORTS: Whatcom County Unified Soccer League bringing special education students and high school students together
MICHELLE NOLAN - FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
MICHELLE NOLAN The Bellingham Herald
Squalicum junior Lauren Wallace says she'll never take playing soccer for granted again.
Wallace loves seeing the sheer joy of students involved in special education courses getting the chance to participate in her favorite sport. She performs with them as a "unified partner" for her school's new "unified soccer" team.
She's determined to help these student-athletes who are involved in special education classes learn something truly special on the field.
The league is coordinated by special education teacher Dominique Lantagne, director of the Community Transitions Program.
Bellingham, which first fielded a unified soccer team for tournaments last spring, now plays in the league along with Squalicum and Sehome. The season, which began with a jamboree April 24, gives each school seven games at Northwest Soccer Park, followed by a state tournament June 1-3 at the old Fort Lewis fields.
"We have 20 student-athletes (students involved in special education, which can include students up to 21 years old) and 15 unified partners (regular students) participating in our new league," said Lantagne. "Our league is part of Project Unify, which is a federal program."
Most of the unified partners play varsity soccer for their school's team, and/or have experience in club soccer.
Lantagne said the league, which includes both girls and boys, "brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team." Athletes and partners improve together and help overcome prejudices about intellectual disabilities, she said.
Mark Wright, who coaches girls' soccer at Bellingham and girls' basketball at Squalicum, guides the Bellingham unified team. Two Western Washington University students, Miles Ridinski and Cody Russell, coach Squalicum and Sehome, respectively.
"Unified Sports is actually a global program," said Lantagne, a 34-year-old Western graduate who was inspired to become a special education teacher when she first began working with Special Olympians at age 16. "I saw unified soccer working well in the Seattle public schools, so I thought it would be great to bring it to Whatcom County. Now I'd like to see every school in Whatcom County have a unified soccer team."
Wallace loves the bubbly enthusiasm of players such as Squalicum unified soccer teammate Jocelyn Gonzalez, a 21-year-old student in special education. Gonzalez loves sports and is playing soccer for the first time.
"I absolutely love watching Jocelyn at practice and in games," said Wallace. "No matter what happens, she's laughing so hard and just having a great time. It's super awesome to see. You go all out, with the same attitude you have (in regular high school games). You go hard 100 percent and always bring tenacity."
Gonzalez wants to score her first goal so much, even her opponents are likely to burst into cheers the first time she does so.
"I think our unified partners are great," Gonzalez said of Squalicum soccer players such as Wallace. "They're fun to talk with. I love their attitudes and the way they really want to make us better."
Lantagne says the teams are serious about giving winning their best shot.
"We're very competitive out there," she said.
Riley Daugherty, a 17-year-old Sehome player and a student in special education classes, is participating in a sport for the first time.
"It's (just) awesome," he said with a grin. "It's pretty exciting to be involved in a sport."
What does he loves the most about soccer?
"Just the people," he said. "They're great!"
Emily Russell, a junior unified partner, plays on Sehome's varsity and said she loves "getting to know people I never knew before. I think it's just really fun. It's definitely on my top five list of school activities."
Bri Smith, a Bellingham senior who capped her career on her school's varsity last fall, said she has seen wonderful things happen in as a unified partner.
"I always look forward to participating (in the unified soccer league)," Smith said. "It just makes my day seeing their smiles. I just love the relationships we build."
Halie Potter, one of Smith's varsity teammates and classmates at Bellingham, says everyone is learning more than they might have imagined.
"A lot of people develop stereotypes, and soccer bridges that gap," Potter said. "We're all the same at the end of the day."
Ben Hilleary, a 19-year-old student in special education classes, is a student-athlete with Bellingham's unified team. He says scoring a goal would be great, but he quickly describes what he really wants.
"To win!" he said.
Wallace says the unified program has already become one of her high school highlights.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
School: Lynden Christian
Kahokuloa Kauhi doesn't make life easy for announcers. She goes by a much easier name to pronounce among her teammates, Koko, but she makes a point to keep it to herself when meeting someone for the first time - especially announcers.
"We all call her Koko, but she loves to tell announcers to call her Kahokuloa because she loves to hear them try to pronounce it for the first time," said Doriane Gunnels, the coach of the Bellingham School District gymnastics teams.
It's a name they should expect to have to say a lot throughout the season.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
As Lynden Christian girls' soccer forward Coryn Bajema tallied goal after goal after goal throughout her senior season, it wasn't her scoring totals that Lyncs' coach Brent De Ruyter kept hearing Bajema talk about.
It was a different type of goal that stole the focus of the star forward's mind.
"You know, she never talked about her goals," De Ruyter said in a phone interview. "She always talked about the main goal, which was to get to state. We felt disappointed last year to lose two matches and not get there and, like I said, she was never talking about her own goal total. It was how we were going to get to (state)."
Blaine senior Megan Schmidt is coming on strong as the Northwest Conference girls' golf season nears its conclusion.
In her last two NWC tournaments, Schmidt has set career highs, scoring 30 Stableford points at an April 26 tournament at Homestead Farms Golf and Country Club, before topping that mark by scoring 44 on Monday, April 30, at Sudden Valley Golf and Country Club.
The golf course is not the only place that Schmidt has shined, as she owns a 4.0 grade-point average.
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