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Players with disabilities get taste of soccer competition

On Saturday, approximately 190 soccer teams converged on the fields at Plantes Ferry Sports Complex for the Les Schwab Northwest Cup. Most of the players had competed in tournaments like this before, but for members of TOPSoccer, the event was a new and exciting experience.

TOPSoccer, The Outreach Program for Soccer, is a national program for individuals 4 and older who have physical or intellectual disabilities. The program debuted in the Spokane area in 2006 under the leadership of Sharlene “Gus” Schmauch.

Currently the 30 to 34 players enrolled meet at the Spokane Indoor Soccer Center, so the grassy fields and sunshine at Plantes Ferry added to the adventure’s novelty.

“This is exciting because we’ve always wanted to give our kids the experience of what a tournament is like,” Schmauch said.

Organizers had set up skill-building stations across the field. Stacks of clothes baskets sat ready to be toppled by a well-placed kick. A huge parachute lay spread out for eager hands to lift and billow, and a mini-obstacle course offered participants a fun way to practice dribbling.

Several TOPSoccer players traveled from Sandpoint to join the festivities. One of them, 22-year-old Jacob Tifft, bowled a strike, using a soccer ball to knock down some orange cones. “All these girls are cheering for me. Yo, yo, yo!” he enthused as he pumped his fist in the air.

His coach, Brice Filippini, encouraged him to kick the ball instead of rolling it, but Tifft was having too much fun bowling. “You want to move closer?” asked Filippini.

“No! Right here!” insisted Tifft, as he waved to his cheering section.

TOPSoccer wouldn’t be possible without dozens of volunteer buddies and coaches. At the Northwest Cup, buddies wearing green jerseys welcomed arriving players and accompanied them on the field.

Seven-year-old Zoe Osborne held hands with her two buddies as she gingerly kicked a ball. “She’s never played before,” said her dad, Gregg Osborne. “I just brought her out for the day.”

But with the unflagging encouragement of her buddies, Zoe was soon getting the ball into the net. And the shy smile that lit up her face spoke volumes.

Mandi Bean’s son, Zachary Archer, also enjoyed the outdoor play. Bean expressed appreciation for the volunteers who facilitate the program. “They make as much of a commitment to my son as I do,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears and her voice broke. “It makes me feel so good that they’re willing to donate their time so my son can play like them.”

In addition to soccer skills, players like Zachary learn social skills through interacting with their buddies and teammates.

This is Zachary’s fourth year with TOPSoccer. “He loves being able to get out there and play like he’s a regular kid,” Bean said. “There aren’t a lot of programs for kids with special needs, so any time I find something, I get him involved.”

Her son’s face grew flushed in the heat as he worked at getting the ball into the net. “He deserves to have all the experiences other kids have,” she added.

After the soccer drills, the players were split into teams to scrimmage. Just like in regular play, a referee officiated. Of course, his whistle didn’t mean a lot to most of the players, but the buddies on the field and the coaches on the sidelines offered encouragement and assistance.

Marty Torres, Washington Youth Soccer TOPSoccer committee chair, traveled from the West Side to attend the event. “This is to get the word out and to promote TOPSoccer,” she said. “We want to show that these kids can play soccer, too. Maybe not the same way, but they can play.”

She added that The Northwest Cup donated the entrance fee, medals and T-shirts to make the tournament possible for TOPSoccer.

As the scrimmages drew to a close, the shouts and cheers of parents and buddies rang out across the field. Bean summed up the feelings of many parents about TOPSoccer: “I love it because my son can be a player, and I get to watch and be a fan.”