This story was updated to correct that the unified soccer team being planned by Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire will not be the Chicago area's first such squad. Indian Prairie School District 204 in Naperville has had teams since 2009, and other schools have teams, too.
Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School is launching a coed soccer program for students with intellectual and physical disabilities.
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Called unified soccer, the game is designed for students who can't participate in existing athletic programs. Athletes are teamed with students without disabilities on the playing field.
Stevenson officials say it's the first program of its kind at a Chicago-area school, although others are in the works. Organizers hope to start play in spring 2014.
The honor of being first isn't as important as offering disabled students new athletic opportunities, Stevenson High spokesman Jim Conrey said.
"We're opening a door for a group of students who previously had no other alternative," Conrey said.
According to a Special Olympics handbook, Unified Sports programs can lead to improved sports skills for athletes, higher self-esteem, equal status among peers and new friendships.
Unified soccer teams already play in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Washington state, as well as internationally. Unified programs for basketball, bocce, track and other sports exist globally, too.
Soccer coaches Mark Schartner and Shannon Kolze will lead Stevenson's effort.
Schartner is the head coach for the boys and girls varsity soccer teams. Kolze is an assistant coach on the boys varsity soccer team and a special-education teacher.
Schartner and Kolze got the idea for a Stevenson unified soccer team earlier this year. They were inspired by a form letter the school received from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights about the importance of providing athletic opportunities to all students, Athletic Director Trish Betthauser said.
Schartner and Kolze lobbied Betthauser to create a program and then agreed to coach the team.
Five or six other schools in the region have shown interest in creating unified soccer teams, too, Betthauser said. She'll meet with representatives from four of them in October about moving forward.
Local rules for the sport need to be established, such as the size of the ball and the goals and how many players can be on the field at once, Betthauser said.
If the effort proves popular, Betthauser would like to create unified teams for sports in all three school athletic seasons.
"It's long overdue," she said. "There is a need."
Soccer: Other schools in the region interested in creating unified teams