The first time Logan Lathrop heard his name announced on a loudspeaker Tuesday night at Service High, it startled him.
A 16-year-old special education student, he had never heard his name announced like that before — so loud and so clear that anyone in the vicinity of the school’s soccer field could hear it.
“I got a little scared,” he said.
By the end of the night, Lathrop was used to hearing his name blasted on the public-address system. It happened every time he scored a goal in the inaugural Partners Club unified soccer match between Service and West.
Lathrop booted four goals for Service in a 6-5 loss to West, which got four goals from special education student Edna Cerrato to hold off the Cougars. Both Lathrop and Cerrato are members of their respective school’s Partners Club, which brings together students with and without mental disabilities to advocate for inclusivity.
One way the clubs pursue their goal is by staging events like Tuesday’s soccer game, which consisted of two 10-minute halves. Special education students and general education students played side by side in the game, which was played in between the Service-West boys varsity game and the Service-West girls varsity game.
Among the coaches on the sideline was Service boys coach Dan Rufner, who is also a counselor. A week before the game, he invited the special education players to a varsity practice.
“Some players that are really competitive were like, ‘Why are we giving up a practice?’ ’’ Rufner said. “Then to see them get into it and cheer for them, it reminds you what the game all about — having fun and encouraging each other.”
The game produced no shortage of smiles, and it ended in laughter. As the clock ticked down, West goalie Lorenzo Umu stopped a shot, put the ball on the ground and got ready to kick it. Before he made contact the shoe on his kicking foot flew high into the air, just as the clock reached zero. His shoelace wasn’t tight enough, he said later with a grin.
West’s Partners Club has about 70 members, said advisor Kaleb Kuehn, who is also an assistant soccer coach for the Eagles. He sees plenty of benefits in having kids without mental deficiencies play games or take on projects with kids who do.
“It breaks that barrier of the unknown,” Kuehn said. “They see what these kids are capable of.”
Service’s Partner Club, headed by Adam Ahonen, has about 150 members and last year was one of 30 schools nationwide recognized by ESPN as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School. It’s the first school in Alaska to earn that honor.
The school celebrated the award by raising a banner in its gym last October at a school-wide assembly, where Chris Bagg, a special education student who played in Tuesday’s match, wore the Cougar mascot costume.
Bagg will graduate from Service next week. His mom, Sheryl Bagg, said he transferred to the school as a sophomore because of its active Partners Club.
“Inclusivity is important for community, for family, for friendship,” she said. “Chris has grown so much and has made so many friends.”
Organizers of Tuesday’s match wanted to give special education students a chance to experience what a real varsity game is like, complete with referees, a giant electronic scoreboard, an enthusiastic crowd and a public-address announcer.
“My intent was to get them a chance to feel what it’s like to be a varsity player,” Rufner said.
Service junior Chase Hodges — a captain on the varsity soccer team and a member of the Partners Club — made sure Lathrop experienced that feeling. After Lathrop scored his fourth goal, Hodges waved him over and got down on one knee.
“Put your foot here,” Hodges said, grinning and patting his leg.
“Put your foot up here,” he repeated.
A puzzled Lathrop finally complied and put his foot on his teammate’s leg. Hodges pretended to shine Lathrop’s shoe, a classic soccer celebration move in a match designed to let everyone shine.