The scene at Howard High School on Oct. 18 looked similar to any other athletic event held on the turf field throughout the year.
There were player announcements and the playing of the national anthem. There were varsity athletes, clad in uniforms representing their respective high schools, and referees monitoring the three 10-minute soccer games happening simultaneously. Whenever a player scored, there were plenty of cheers and smiles.
The event, once labeled the “Pumpkin Bowl” but now called the Allied County Cup, served as a fitting and satisfying end to the seventh soccer season of Allied Sports, which has offered Howard County students with disabilities a chance to compete in organized athletics.
“These kids never had a chance to participate in anything like this before, and they belong,” Allied Sports Commissioner Steven Pfister said. “They have team uniforms, they’re part of a team, they can earn a varsity letter. We’re trying to make this as real as an experience as it can be, and it is. They’re playing sports in high school.”
The Allied Sports program, which also offers bowling in the winter and indoor softball and golf in the spring, has continued to grow since its first season in 2011.
Pfister said every Howard County high school has an Allied program, which is comprised of students with and without disabilities. Each team also has “partners,” or high school students who serve as support staff during games and practices.
Between the three groups, Pfister said 198 students participated in the soccer program this this year.
The Allied Sports model has also spread into other counties, according to Chuck Spalding, who has coached at Long Reach since the program’s start. Baltimore County has a program. In the winter, Spalding said his team will compete against Anne Arundel County schools in bowling.
Mostly recently, Oakland Mills traveled to Dulaney High School on Oct. 21 in the first-ever Allied game between Howard and Baltimore counties. The soccer game ended in a 1-1 tie.
“The special education population, they’re neglected a lot in a lot of ways, and a lot of people don’t realize how much they’re capable of,” Oakland Mills coach Nicole Pickett said. “I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to show the Oakland Mills community that look, these kids can do something, they can do the exact same thing you can, only at their ability level.”
Pickett and her team were also at Howard on Oct. 18 for what Pickett called one of the two best parts of the soccer program.
In addition to watching her players develop, she loves seeing the allied community come together, which happens twice during the fall season. On Sept. 15, the teams opened the year by congregating at Centennial High School for a countywide scrimmage.
“The Allied Soccer program makes me feel like I can be a part of the team, so I can communicate with them, play with them,” said senior Wendy Jimenez, who plays for Long Reach. “We have some losses, we have some wins, but at least we have fun with each other. It was a great experience for me.”
For River Hill coach Danny Ives, who has been coaching the past five years, the enjoyment comes from seeing the students compete with their peers and represent their school at the varsity level. Before the county cup, each team played about a month-long regular season with two games scheduled each week. On off-days, River Hill practiced.
Now, with the season over, teams will hold banquet dinners to recognize their athletes’ successes.
Ives and Spalding also made sure to credit the partners for making the program work. They run the show at River Hill, Ives said, going through stretches with the other students out and running them through various drills. Occasionally, Ives will offer advice, but the partners’ contributions allow him to mostly observe how much fun his group is having on the field.
One of those partners is junior Dominic Beninati, who has been helping out since his freshman year. His brother introduced him to the program, and he’s been a partner for Allied Soccer ever since. In the spring, he plays tennis for the Hawks.
It’s been a great experience for Beninati, interacting with his fellow students. While he no longer plays competitive soccer, he enjoys passing on his knowledge and skill to others.
Still, there’s one aspect of Allied Soccer that stands out from the rest.