You could say that 18-year-old Matthew Nesselrode of Shawnee is a sports fanatic. Basketball, swimming, softball — you name it and he likes it.
But for this recent Mill Valley High School graduate, playing sports in school wasn’t always an option.
Nesselrode, who has autism spectrum disorder, was limited to joining sports teams in leagues outside his school. That’s until he and junior Kaitlyn Moore joined forces to form a Unified Soccer Team at Mill Valley High School. It was a dream come true for both Nesselrode and his mother, Rhonda.
“He had done things through parks and recreation, but as he got older it became evident that he would not participate in group sports at school,” Rhonda Nesselrode said. “It was something that I didn’t expect would ever happen and the Unified Soccer team made that happen.”
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The Unified Soccer Team at Mill Valley is made up of five students with intellectual disabilities and five without. It’s all part of Project Unify, an initiative through Special Olympics that encourages athletic opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities.
Nesselrode and Moore recently returned from the Special Olympics Youth Summit in New Jersey. Nesselrode represented Kansas Special Olympics Athletes and Moore represented Kansas youth. Two delegates per state were chosen to participate in the summit, which focused on how sports can be a platform for social justice. The two traveled with 22 athletes and seven coaches from Kansas who participated in the Special Olympics games in New Jersey.
For Nesselrode and Moore, the summit gave them an excellent opportunity to compare notes with other Project Unify students from across the country.
“We got together and talked about what was working for us and what wasn’t and how we can improve upon it,” Moore said. “We brought back tons of ideas.”
And while there was plenty of time for brainstorming ideas, there was also plenty of time for fun too.
“We got to go on the Jersey boardwalk and take a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty,” Matthew Nesselrode said.
It’s the second time that Nesselrode and Moore have traveled together. Last year, the two attended the Special Olympics North America Conference in North Carolina. That’s where they found inspiration for starting the Unified Soccer Team they launched at Mill Valley High School last fall.
The team played around five games during the year, including a tournament. High schools in the Bonner Springs, Blue Valley, De Soto and Kansas City, Kan., school districts also have Unified Soccer Teams.
Both Nesselrode and Moore were happy with the success of the team’s inaugural year.
“I think I did really good,” Nesselrode said. “I scored eight goals in one game.”
“Matthew has told me that it’s a great thing to do, because he would never get a chance to play on a competitive soccer team,” Moore said. “It made him feel accepted and it gave him a chance to be involved in high school.”
Nesselrode has graduated, but Moore plans on staying involved in the Unified Soccer Team next year. She has hopes of expanding the program to include a basketball team at Mill Valley and would like Nesselrode to still help out even though he won’t be a student.
The two classmates, who have grown up together, have developed a special bond through their combined effort to bring school sports to students who wouldn’t normally get to participate in them.
“She’s really fun to hang out with,” Nesselrode said. “She’s really nice and a great role model. She’s a good mentor toward me.”