Shelby Johnston cherished the look in her son Korben’s eyes on Saturdays last May.
Korben, now 7 and a second grader in Crystal Lake, is not really the sporty type. As a special needs child, it would be difficult for him to keep up with other children in sports leagues.
The Crystal Lake Soccer Federation’s TOPSoccer program was perfect for Korben and many other special needs children. Bob Hansen, the director of the CLSF recreation league, felt TOPSoccer was needed and started the league last year, with special needs children receiving 1-on-1 attention and coaching from their "buddies" while they play their games.
“We’ve seen so much progress,” Johnston said. “He lacks grace, he’s getting better at balance and learning a lot about controlling the ball. It’s a great program. He’ll ask on Saturdays, ‘Do I have soccer?’ He gets pretty excited about it. Having the 1-on-1, correcting their kicking style, things like that, it’s just what they need.”
Hansen said this year's program will run Saturdays from May 2 through June 6, with games at 2:30 p.m. at Lippold Park off Route 176 in Crystal Lake. There were 15 special needs players in the first year, a number Hansen hopes will increase significantly this spring.
The league plays on smaller fields, with 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 games with players matched by age and skill levels. A couple of the TOPSoccer players developed enough that they will play on regular recreation league teams this season, as well as playing again in TOPSoccer.
Anyone wanting to register for the program, which is $25, can contact Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org. There also is information on the Crystal Lake Soccer Federation Recreation League Facebook page.
“We’re trying to get it to grow,” Hansen said. “We need to stretch out more. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
The buddies assigned to special needs players are players from CLSF rec teams, some of whom even play for their high school teams. Crystal Lake Central sophomore Reese Schurter is involved with the Crystal Lake Central Buddies Program and teams with 12-year-old Lily Koscielski for TOPSoccer.
“It was so much fun,” Schurter said. “I want to work with special needs kids when I’m older. So it was a fun experience to learn how to interact with them more on a personal level. It’s awesome. I get to hang out with Lily, my best bud.”
Sydney Schmidt, a junior at Cary-Grove, is a board member for C-G Buddies and a member of the Trojans' girls soccer team.
“I like to see the kids are getting to experience things outside of school,” Schmidt said. “Soccer is something I love. I love that we can bring that to them, get them moving around in an open environment instead of board games and stuff like that. I like how the kids respond to failures and wins. They can’t score every goal and can’t win every time. They get to work on their winning and failing at the same time. These kids are amazing. They’re just letting go and having fun.”
Crystal Lake resident Michael Fisher appreciates what TOPSoccer has done for his 19-year-old special needs daughter Leah. She had played one year of soccer previously, and after playing with TOPSoccer she also was moved to a rec team.
“I was pretty thrilled [for her to move up to rec].” Michael Fisher said. “She was very excited about it. She’ll be on a big field now. She had gotten confidence. Huge confidence. She’s out there with other girls, and these are typical, developing girls, and she plays goalie. To have to that confidence to play in goal is really cool.”
Shelby Johnston is grateful that TOPSoccer is inexpensive.
“A lot of these kids have therapies outside of school, physical therapy or speech therapy, and all that kind of stuff costs a lot of money,” she said. “Having an affordable program to put them in is another plus to the thing. It would be great if more sporting organizations would start programs like these. There’s a big need for this. These kids need to play sports, but there’s not always a team that’s a good fit for them.”
Hansen said Tim Koscielski, Lily’s father, and Tom Freeman, a former CLSF president, were instrumental in helping get TOPSoccer up and running. Freeman’s severely disabled son Ryan died about four years ago at age 31.
Freeman remembered several years ago coaching a 10U team in Hanover Park that had a player with Down syndrome. Freeman didn’t know it when he got his list of players. The boy’s father expressed his doubts about his son being able to keep up, but Freeman reassured him.
“I said, ‘He’s part of the team. The kids will accept him, he’s going to play half the game just like everybody else,’ ” Freeman said. “ ’Trust us, we’ll do OK.’ ”
At the end of the season, Freeman’s team was league champion. The Down syndrome child played half of every game, just as he said, and may never have touched the ball.
“At the end of the season, he got that trophy and he’s waving it over his head and all his teammates were huddled around him,” Freeman said. “As my mom would say, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.’ It was very cool.”