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 it started. 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 Colchester junior Ruby Tetrick, the experience lets her interact alongside kids with disabilities, an opportunity she hasn’t immersed herself in before.
“It’s cool to be able to hang out with them, talk to them, get to know them and just form bonds and friendships,” she said.
Tetrick, along with Essex junior Noah Palker, were partnered with 8-year-old Ella St. Francis this year.
Tetrick said she learned how to relate to her buddy, making Ella comfortable enough to break through her shy façade and be her outgoing and humorous self. Watching that transformation, and seeing Ella’s soccer skills develop, is rewarding, Tetrick said.
When Ella arrived last Sunday afternoon, she ran toward Palker, ready to receive the first pass of the day.
“She adores [Noah],” Tetrick said. “She just loves to be with him.”
As the trio passed the ball back and forth, Ella’s dad and sister sat in the grass beyond the goal line. While it was Tetrick’s first year with the program, it was Ella’s third.
Prior to TOPSoccer, Ella’s dad, John St. Francis, said she hadn’t played the sport in organized fashion. Instead, she would pass the ball with her brother, Wilfred, in their backyard.
“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.”
The high-schoolers said the program doesn’t just benefit the young ones.
“It’s so fulfilling to bring them this [experience] that they usually don’t get to have, and they wouldn’t be able to have without this program,” Tetrick said.
This year marked CHS’ first year with the program. Other Colchester residents, like three-year TOPSoccer coach Rick Brigante and Rice players Amanda and Emily Bloom, also take part.
Many of the players said Sundays are a release from their otherwise hectic weeks as student-athletes, juggling school, homework and multiple hour-long practices, games and bus rides.
“It kind of brings you back to why you play soccer in the first place,” Emily Pallas of Milton said.
Part of that is playing for the fun of it, not the competition.
While many of this year’s TOPSoccer volunteers are graduating, Tetrick has another year to go, and she said she can’t wait for the season to kick back up again.
Every fall Sunday, Ella wakes up and exclaims to her brothers and sisters, “I have TOPSoccer today!”
Next year, Tetrick may wake up every Sunday thinking the same, a bit more excited to practice and experience the joy the game can bring.