Applause from almost 200 people repeatedly exploded at Essex Tree Farm last Sunday as young soccer stars with disabilities were called up one by one to receive a trophy and stream of high-fives from coaches and players.
The celebration marked Vermont’s 11th season of TOPSoccer, or The Outreach Program for Soccer. The nationwide program, run under the umbrella of U.S. Youth Soccer, matches area varsity high school soccer players with kids with disabilities, ages 4 to 21, for six weeks each fall.
Kids learn basic soccer technique for speed dribbling, passing, receiving and shooting, and how to interact socially.
Essex High School girls soccer, along with the Rice Memorial High School’s boys team, have been with the program since its start. EHS boys plus the Rice, Milton High School and Colchester High School girls teams have since joined, amounting to 97 varsity players.
“Growth is very much secondary to the fact that it is a program that allows children who are normally on the sidelines watching siblings player soccer, get out and play,” TOPSoccer founder Ed DeMulder added.
Despite being rivals, the high-schoolers said working in a friendly environment with other players creates a unique and positive bond.
For Milton senior Emily Pallas, the experience brings her back to the roots of the game, reminding her why she plays soccer in the first place.
“I love soccer,” Pallas said. “It’s a big stress reliever … it gets your mind off of things.”
So when someone’s in a rut, focusing on standings or playing time, Pallas said showing up Sunday is a positive reminder to relax and have fun.
For the past two years, Pallas was partnered with the same young boy, Sam, giving her the opportunity to further their bond. In many instances, buddies are matched with someone different every year.
Like many of these athletes, TOPSoccer was Pallas’ first time working alongside kids with disabilities.
At first, she said, Sam wouldn’t participate in drills, often sitting on the sideline screaming. She was unsure how to handle the situation and just tried to survive the two-hour session. That changed, though, and now she can’t believe the season’s over.
Always looking forward to Sunday, Pallas learned how to engage Sam, even when he starts to lose focus. Plus, she said, his skills have improved dramatically.
“They do more for me than I could ever do for them,” Pallas said.
Away at a family reunion last Sunday, Sam wasn’t present to receive his trophy and high-fives. Rest assured, Pallas said he’s planning to attend one of Milton’s remaining games this fall.
Upon graduation, Pallas said she’s going to miss TOPSoccer, but more specifically, her new friend.
“He comes in here and he starts singing Taylor Swift at the top of his lungs,” Pallas said with a laugh. “He knows all the lyrics — he’s only 6 years old — I don’t know how!”
On the field over from Pallas, Milton twins Katrina and Gabe Garrow ran about, passing the ball between sets of cones. Katrina, who plays for Rice, is partnered with Gabe, who has a disability.
According to DeMulder, Gabe is one of TOPSoccer’s biggest success stories. A few weeks ago, a TOPSoccer program from Woodstock came to scrimmage at the Essex Jct. facility. Gabe came up big, scoring the winning goal, DeMulder said.
No matter if a goal is a game-winner or a slow, trickling ball to the back of the net, each feat is celebrated like it’s part of a World Cup game: Dozens of pairs of hands shoot up in the air, bracing for a rigorous round of high-fives.
Like Pallas, TOPSoccer teaches the high-schoolers how to adapt and coach a variety of kids, who all have different skill levels and physical and intellectual abilities.
For Ruby Tetrick of Colchester, the experience taught her how to make her buddy, Ella St. Francis, comfortable enough to break away from her shy façade and be her outgoing and humorous self.
According to her dad, John St. Francis, Ella wakes up every fall Sunday and tells her brothers and sisters, “I have TOPSoccer today!”
“It’s fabulous to get the kids out and enjoying, learning and exercising,” St. Francis said. “And really what is special is all the volunteer coaches: The high school students who all take time off their Sundays to come and do this, it’s really great.”
Pallas laments that she can’t continue volunteering with TOPSoccer after graduation.
“I wish I could come back and do it,” she said. “But hopefully I can stay in touch with [Sam].”