National games reward budding Bellingham unified soccer program

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 11, 2014 

The Bellingham Unified Soccer team

The Bellingham Unified Soccer team will head to New Jersey to compete in the Special Olympics National Games.

DOMINIQUE LANTAGNE — FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Ever since Bellingham High School's unified soccer program was selected for the Special Olympic National Games last year, Ben Hilleary has been over the moon.

Every time he sees coach Mark Wright, Hilleary doesn't hesitate.

"New Jersey, New Jersey!" Hilleary will exclaim.

Hilleary has been on the team since the program began four years ago. When the team plays its first game at the National Games on Monday, June 16, in Newark, N.J., all of Hilleary's hard work will come to fruition.

"It's pretty amazing," Wright said in a phone interview. "He's an amazingly happy man."

Hilleary and goalkeeper Bryce Hamm have been with the team from the start.

For Hamm, it will be only his second trip of his life, Wright said. The other trip for Hamm was when he traveled with the Special Olympics team to Colorado earlier this year.

"It's pretty amazing to be part of seeing those guys get the opportunity to get rewarded for their time and effort," Wright said. "They are two very different guys with a very similar reward."

To be selected for the games was a long process.

It started four years ago when Dominique Lantagne started the unified soccer program in Whatcom County. The program is made up of athletes - kids with disabilities - and partners - kids that don't qualify for special services at schools.

She asked coach Wright to head up Bellingham's team despite Wright's lack of experience with kids with disabilities.

The program was a wild success, though, and now has grown to incorporate an entire league of teams, including teams from the Bellingham schools, Ferndale, Burlington and Granite Falls.

"She's been the person who helped me through how to deal with kids with disabilities," Wright said. "She's given me the opportunity to be myself with these kids. It's a gift she gave me and I'm very grateful for that. Without her, none of this would be possible."

The National Games will cap off a spectacular year for Wright, who took his unified soccer team to a second-place finish at the state tournament along with leading his Bellingham High School girls' soccer team to a second-place state finish.

"There has been a lot to remember," Wright said. "This year has been rewarding and now I have one more journey to cap off this year."

The difference between Wright's girls' soccer team and the unified team was the knowledge of how the season would end.

The unified soccer team was selected for the National Games after being named state champions last season, which was followed by a phone interview to decide which team best represented what the unified soccer program is about.

Wright's team aced the phone interview and found out they would be attending the games in New Jersey.

Knowing that the season would finish at the National Games didn't make it easier for the team though.

"I think carried responsibility that we needed to have a fairly regular routine of practicing," Wright said. "That was over our heads the whole time, but we continued to play real hard."

The team didn't let it affect it, as Bellingham went on to take second in state, falling to Chief Sealth 4-3 in the championship game.

The entire opportunity has meant a lot to Wright, who enjoys karaoke, hanging out and "lodging it up" with the kids.

"There's not a lot of times in school that kids with significant disabilities intereact with kids that don't have disabilities," Wright said. "When it happens, a glorious scenario occurs. There's a lot of laugher. They learn a lot about each other. It's been a great experience."

Wright wouldn't have been able to get this far without the help of his partners, most of which play for Wright during the high school season.

With many of the athletes coming into the program not knowing how to play soccer, the partners are able to impart wisdom and knowledge of the game to them.

"Without those guys, it would make my job harder," Wright said.

The team will head to New Jersey on Saturday, June 14, before starting pool play on Monday, June 16. If Bellingham makes it, the championship game will be held on Thursday, June 19.

To follow all the competition and events of the games, visit www.2014specialolympics.org.

Reach Joshua Hart by email at joshua.hart@bellinghamherald.com or by calling 360-715-2851.

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