MIHS Unified Sports soccer squad scores second at state

Team members learn life lessons on and off the pitch.

Be yourself and have fun.

That’s the most crucial piece of advice that Cortez Smith can present to his fellow Mercer Island High School (MIHS) Unified Sports partners and athletes when they’re engaged in the action on the playing field and hanging out away from the game.

The school’s thriving Unified program is run through Special Olympics and provides inclusive competitive activities for students with and without disabilities in the football, co-ed soccer and basketball realms.

Smith, an MIHS senior on the soccer squad, said the participants form tight bonds the entire way.

“I think it’s really important to have everybody being able to have a chance,” he said. “The whole community that we’ve built for Unified I think is really cool and creative.”

What’s also cool is that the soccer team became the first MIHS Unified team in any sport to make an appearance in a state tournament and notched second place on May 25 at Washington Premier Fields in Puyallup. Two weeks earlier, the squad became the program’s first district champion by winning four games on May 11 at Ingraham High School in Seattle to qualify for state.

Unified soccer teams play five-versus-five matches with each side featuring two partners and three special needs athletes. The games are competitive and fun, according to MIHS senior Taven Glennon-Mulein.

“If we didn’t have Unified, then all the kids with special needs wouldn’t get to learn those lessons about perseverance or being a part of a team,” said Glennon-Mulein, who joined Unified to learn more about his brother with special needs.

Through Unified, Taven is building connections with people of all abilities and wants Unified teams to stand tall alongside all MIHS sports teams.

MIHS Unified coordinator and soccer coach Jeniffer Blaser said the team displayed diligence and determination during the matches, especially when it fielded just four members against five to triumph in the winner-to-state contest. At state, MIHS beat Battle Ground, 2-1, in the semifinals and lost to Shorecrest, 6-2, in the final.

Blaser, who coaches the squad with Jamie Glennon, said that it takes a full team effort to garner Unified success.

“It helps people build friendships that may otherwise not be connected,” Blaser said. “I think there’s a lot that the kids learn about the sport, but I think there’s also just a lot that they learn about being human beings.”

Sophomore Yura Vaganov added about the importance of his involvement with Unified: “I love seeing those kids improve. I love seeing myself improve and having more intense matches and not giving up.”

Vaganov was nervous about joining the Unified scene last year and not knowing any of the team members, but now he’s friends with the others and is thrilled to join them on a stellar, state-placing squad.

Parent Andrea Fukano, whose son Gavin is a Unified soccer player, noted about the program: “We are very grateful to Jeniffer Blaser for bringing Unified Sports to MIHS. This program gives our more challenged students an opportunity to participate in high school sports and shine like the superstars they are.”

MIHS senior Brandon Fukano added: “Being a mentor was a great experience. I was able to share the field and also my love for sports with my little brother, Gavin, and his friends. I grew really close to all of the athletes. It was fun being on the team.”

Gavin has gained a love for Unified Sports and enjoyed playing goalie and making copious friends.

The Unified Sports environment is a vital and special place for all involved, Smith said.

“I feel like some of the times you’re in environments and you feel like you can’t really express yourself or be yourself. I think when you’re in an environment like this, you should always be safe and comfortable in your surroundings, and I feel like that’s what Unified has done for at least me and I think the kids,” Smith said.