By Kyle LoJacono
Land O’ Lakes High sent two teams to the Special Olympics state soccer tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World May 13-14, and each brought back silver medals.
The squads are Pasco County LOL Blue and Pasco County LOL HS Gold. Both won area championships in its division en route to the state appearance.
“It was really fun,” said junior Yvonne Collinsworth, a Gold team member. “There was a dance and we did really well too.”
It was the second straight trip to states for both squads. Gold was the state runner-up last year, while Blue claimed the 2010 championship.
“It was the biggest game of my life,” said Colton Larson, Blue team member and 2007 Land O’ Lakes High graduate. “I’ll always remember it.”
Another member of the Blue team is freshman Joseph Tramel. He also plays basketball, but most enjoys soccer.
“I like scoring and passing,” Tramel said. “Defense is fun too.”
Vicky King coaches both teams and has taught Special Olympics athletes since 1986.
“We want to teach them the game of soccer and to play as a team,” said King, who is also the Gators girls soccer coach. “We teach them that it’s all about team, not the individual. From there, it’s just work on getting them better. If you ask any athlete, their goal is to get to the state games. No matter how they play there, they want to play in the state event.”
King said coaching Special Olympics athletes is not that much different from what she does in the winter.
“The fitness aspect is a big hurdle, but also learning that it truly is a team sport,” King said. “We teach them that if you let the ball do the work with a passing game, it’s a lot easier than trying to have one person dribble the ball up the field. We teach them everybody can score and they learn how to work together like any soccer team.”
Coaching for Special Olympics offers different challenges for King as well.
“The rules are different from traditional soccer, so that makes it a little difficult,” King said. “It’s different from the sport they’ve seen on TV. I forget sometimes when we need to do a kick or throw-in, so I need to constantly remind myself. It makes teaching the rules a bit of a challenge.”
All members of the Gators teams are either current or former Land O’ Lakes students. Players can stay involved in Special Olympics indefinitely.
Both squads are unified teams, which means they have two traditional athletes playing with three Special Olympics players at the same time.
“Unified is all about inclusion and unity,” King said. “It lets everyone participate and helps them become friends.”
One of the unified athletes is senior Keke Potts, who has been working with Special Olympics athletes the last four years. She is also a defender for the Gators girls soccer team.
“I’d helped with the team and I really like soccer, so it was the perfect thing for me,” Potts said. “We wanted to help them get to states.”
Potts has many fond memories of the Special Olympics, but one stands out.
“It was amazing last year when the Blue team won the state championship,” Potts said. “Their faces were great and the experience, to share that with them, is one of the greatest memories of my life. I like working with these kids. We’re good friends and I’m going to miss them when I graduate.”
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