Unified Cup News
Suzanne BakerContact Reporter
A group of athletes from Naperville and Aurora will share the international stage in soccer next week as they compete in the first-ever Special Olympics Unified Cup.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics, the organization is hosting the July 17-20 competition at Toyota Park in Bridgeview featuring teams made up of players with and without intellectual disabilities.
Three men’s teams from the United States — Illinois, Texas and Kansas/Missouri — will compete against athletes from 13 different countries on five continents.
Of the 16 members of Team USA Illinois, six are current or former students in Naperville District 203 and Indian Prairie District 204, and one of their coaches is District 204 special education teacher Blake Cline.
“I’ve coached the district (204 soccer) team for five years. … I’m just grateful for this opportunity. To be a part of the 50th anniversary is amazing,” Cline said.
Three of the players Cline coached through District 204 made the USA Illinois team: Grant Collins and Mark Jerabek, of Naperville, and Ryan McDonough, of Aurora.
Collins, a graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, said he’s a little nervous.
While he played soccer with the DuPage Valley Special Athletes team that qualified for the state Special Olympics competition, he’s never played international teams.
“It’s a way of playing at a different level,” Collins said. “I just have to try my best.”
Jerabek, also a Neuqua Valley grad, views the Unified Cup as a chance to make new friends.
“Just getting to know new people will be fun. We always want to welcome people to America,” said Jerabek, who attends the College of DuPage.
For the last several years McDonough’s played against teams from other states through the Chicago Fire’s unified soccer team, he said.
“None of those can compare to (the Unified Cup),” said the Waubonsie Valley High School graduate. who is studying computer game design at COD.
“I want to win, of course. But as long as we do our best, that is good,” McDonough said. “Having fun is the most important thing.”
Special Olympic soccer
Team USA Illinois player Michael Brennan, of Naperville, left, tries to drive the ball away from teammate Ryan McDonough, of Aurora, July 11 during a practice at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. (Suzanne Baker / Naperville Sun)
Playing alongside the Special Olympic athletes is unified partner Colin Iverson. Compared to high school or club teams he’s played with, the atmosphere with Team USA Illinois is much more supportive, he said.
Iverson, who will be a senior at Naperville North High School in the fall, said he’s learned the importance of patience, which will be helpful because he wants study special education at Bowling Green State, where he’s also committed to play soccer in college.
Beyond that, Iverson said he’s excited to compete against other international teams. “Playing for your country, I’ll probably never get that opportunity again,” he said.
Iverson got involved with unified soccer through fellow Naperville resident and unifed partner Ethan Harvey, who just graduated from Naperville North and will be attending college and playing soccer at High Point University in North Carolina.
“All the athletes have tremendous soccer IQ. Some of them amaze me,” said Harvey, noting Jerabek can run mile in four minutes and 30 seconds. “I don’t run a 4:30 mile,” he said.
Harvey connected with the special needs community because of his uncle. “My uncle didn’t participate in Special Olympics because the opportunity was lacking in the community,” he said.
For Harvey, helping Special Olympics means other people like his uncle don’t miss out. The experience also has enabled him to better work with teammates on the field and grow as a leader, he said.
As captain of the varsity soccer team and his club team, Harvey said he often gives directions. “You need patience. You can’t have a short temper with anyone,” he said.
While he can’t guess how the team will perform, Harvey said he expects the competition will be strong, particularly since soccer is such a big sport in the rest of the world.
The young men with Team USA Illinois are scheduled to take on France at 8 a.m. July 17, Uruguay at 11:30 a.m. July 18 and Bangladesh at 11:30 a.m. July 19 for the chance to move into the semifinal rounds July 20.
The final matches will be shown live on ESPN2, marking the first-ever live prime-time showing of a Special Olympics Unified Sports competition.
On the woman’s side, seven countries will vie for the cup against one American team, Team Illinois USA, which is coached by Kim Pehlke, an Indian Prairie teacher and the district’s Special Olympics coordinator. No local women made the women’s team.
Pehlke said the benefit of sports like unified soccer is it allows the athletes to learn from each other. “Sport brings people together, and this is a perfect example of inclusion in action,” she said.
While Pehlke has worked with District 204 students who’ve competed nationally, she’s never coached a team that has played international teams. Pehlke’s unified women’s team take on Slovakia, Kenya and Brazil July 17-19.
Special Olympic soccer
Team USA Illinois members Colin Iverson, left, and Ethan Harvey practice July 11. The former Naperville North teammates are partners with Special Olympics athletes on the unified soccer team. (Suzanne Baker / Naperville Sun)
Other players on the men’s team include athletes Michael Brennan, of Naperville, Cody Zimmer, of Sycamore, Emmanuel Johnson, of Harvey, and George Bustos and Edwin Perez, of Chicagoâ€” and unified players Gautam Bhoyrul, of Chicago, Adam Gaydos, of Tinley Park, Jared Hoekstra, of Homewood, Peter Kass, of Western Springs, Enrique Moreno, of Chicago, and Matthew Rosen, of Poplar Grove.