Tuesday, August 03, 1999

Children with disabilities enjoy soccer league

Enquirer contributor

Katy Bowersox concentrates on the ball.
(Scott Leder photos)
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        Imagine a kids' soccer game where a little girl has to be reminded to hold her position rather than going to hug the goalie. Where some kids get so focused on running that they run off the field. Where everyone cheers when the opponents score a goal.

        Now, imagine a team where the 4-year-old goalie is blind and the most determined player moves down the field with a walker.

        The league is called Cincinnati TOP Soccer. Begun last fall, its players are kids with disabilities.

        Emily Pennington, 5, one of two blind children in the league, loves the cheering.

        “The ball has a bell in it, so I can find it,” she says. “So I kick the ball and everybody laughs and yells "TOP soccer.'”

Parents and volunteers assist players who need it.
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        At 11, Katelyn Orcutt has the physical stature and mental ability of a 5- or 6-year-old. Her “run” is a fast walk. But she loves putting on her soccer uniform, making friends on the field and cheering for everybody.

        It was Katelyn's father, Doug, who started the league.

        “For years, Katelyn cheered on the sidelines for her brother and sisters,” the 35-year-old financial planner says. “Maybe I started the program out of a little guilt that I wanted to give her a chance to play, too.”

        A veteran soccer player since age 7, Mr. Orcutt has coached his other three children and wanted to see Katelyn play. He learned about “The Outreach Program” (TOP), developed by the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, as an alternative for kids with disabilities, and decided start a program in his own neighborhood.

        In the spring of 1998, Mr. Orcutt placed fliers in schools, mostly throughout eastern Cincinnati. Calls from parents poured in, and by fall he had 52 kids, ranging in age from 5 to 20, ready to play.

Josh Crosby of Loveland.
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        Kids were divided into four age/ability groups, each with enough players to make two teams for games. As with non-disabled kids, competitiveness and the understanding of rules varies according to age, but a general rule seems to be that every player is encouraged and congratulated.

        “One thing I learned right away is that you have to be flexible,” says Dan Sweeney, who coached his 13-year-old son's team in TOP soccer. “I came to the first practice with the usual organized set of drills, and realized right away that I had to tear up my plan. Picture nine kids and 14 balls, all going in different directions.”

        Eventually, Mr. Sweeney says, his team worked into a smooth routine, and coaching his son's team has become a prized activity. David Sweeney, who has Down syndrome, had always loved kicking a soccer ball around at recess with classmates. Like so many children hooked on TOP soccer, however, there was never really a place for him among peers who were faster, bigger, more aggressive players.

        Emily Pennington was born without sight due to a condition called leber's congenial amarosis. A bright, engaging child who loves her trampoline, her swing set and country music, Emily's usual position on the team was goalie.

        DeAnn Pennington, Emily's mother, says that while soccer would never have been an activity she and her husband would have sought out for Emily, the sport has become a priority.

        “Some things, like swimming, wouldn't matter, vision or no vision,” Mrs. Pennington says. “But we never would have thought of soccer if this hadn't come along ... I don't feel like we're different there. All of us are on the same page in life, and it's just wonderful.”

        Rick Furtwengler, assistant coach for Emily's team, got involved because his 6-year-old daughter, Kate, has Down syndrome.

        “I think she'd rather hug the goalie than kick the ball,” he says, laughing, “but when you mention soccer, she lights up and runs to put on her uniform.”

        “All I want is to see as many kids as possible have the opportunity to play soccer,” says Doug Orcutt, whose energy and drive have moved the program forward. Last year 52 east side kids — with disabilities including Down syndrome, autism, spina bifida, and blindness — played. This year, a western Cincinnati group has been formed in Delhi Township. His goal is to have four or five regional groups throughout the city, so that no one has to travel a great distance to play.

        “Doug has been the driving force behind this whole program,” says Mr. Sweeney, a sentiment that is echoed by parent after parent. Apparently, his generosity of spirit is contagious — evidenced by the outpouring of time and money from a remarkable range of sources.

        From the gas station that donated balls to the restaurant that underwrote a victory banquet for all players and their families, the league seems to bring out the best in people everywhere. In addition to parents and some siblings, volunteer coaches and assistants have come from a surprising range of sources. One woman who has no children drove every week to Newtown from Blue Ash just to help out, Mr. Orcutt recalled, and a westernCincinnati man with four grown, nondisabled children became a dedicated volunteer.

        The aim for the fall of 1998 is to include as many new players and parents as possible, to grow groups in more areas, and to extend the single fall season to winter and spring soccer as well. There are kids throughout northeast Cincinnati, Mason and elsewhere who would like to play soccer and, as yet, no programs to serve them.

        “We just play regular soccer,” Mr. Orcutt says. “Regular soccer with regular goals.”

        TOP Soccer kids play for the regular reasons, too — fun, sport, the joy of playing with others and realizing success. But there's nothing “regular” about the passion and commitment of the adults who have made it happen.

        TOP soccer practices begin at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 17, at Oakdale Elementary School and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 24 m. at Riverside Park, Roundbottom Road in Newtown. Games will begin after Labor Day. The league invites players, parents, volunteers, and donations. 588-4980.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: dkendrick@enquirer.com

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