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The Challenger soccer team enjoys its time together

by: Vern Uyetake, 
Lakeridge High School varsity soccer player Eric DeStefano ties Drew Scarlett’s shoe while Daniel Tucker hangs on tight. DeStefano volunteers his time to coach the boys, who are on the Lake Oswego Challenger soccer team.

The scene wasn't all that unusual for a crisp early fall day in Lake Oswego.

A group of kids in shin guards raced across a field near Lakeridge High School, trying their best to pass a soccer ball.

From the sidelines, moms offered encouragement and cheers.

The one-hour practices, held each Monday, present a time for camaraderie for kids on the Lake Oswego Challenger soccer team.

They also present a few challenges. Half of the team's members were born with Down syndrome; the other half have a variety of disabilities.

Nevertheless, teammates find joy in the simplest of lessons, such as learning how to kick the ball into the net.

'You can really tell they're into success,' said Paula Schiedler as she watched her daughter, Megan, work with a coach. 'They know it's important to score that goal.'

Many of the players and their coaches - members of the Lakeridge junior varsity 1 squad - will also participate in the annual Down Syndrome Network Buddy Walk Sunday.

The event, which begins at Millennium Plaza Park in downtown Lake Oswego, aims to celebrate Down Syndrome Awareness Month in October and raise awareness about the condition, which occurs in about one in 750 births.

It also highlights the need for kids to stay healthy with exercise.

Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality, presents a variety of health problems that cause kids to be less physically active and have slower metabolism.

Regular physical activity, like organized sports, can improve their physical fitness and motor skills, increase self-confidence and create a more positive self-image.

'They're slower than typical kids but they can achieve just about anything,' Paula Schiedler said.

In the Special Olympics, for example, kids start training for various sports at age 9 and compete by age 10. Many athletes go on to compete at the national and international level.

For the families of Challenger athletes, team practices and games also offer a way to make friends and network within the greater Down syndrome community.

The Down Syndrome Network of Oregon helps connect parents of kids with Down syndrome, too. The Buddy Walk is its annual fund-raiser to raise money for education, research and advocacy programs, family support and scholarships. Last year, the event brought in close to $35,000.

Bruce and Renee Kerr, parents of Lakeridge soccer player Turner Kerr, started Challenger soccer as an outlet for their younger son, Eli, who has Down syndrome, and kids like him.

This year, the Lake Oswego Soccer Club offered to sponsor the team and include it on its official Web site to make Challenger part of the official league. The club is also helping with scheduling games and reserving playing fields.

After school, the Lakeridge soccer players volunteer their time to lead stretches, practice drills and shots on goal. Challenger players range from seven to 15 years old. Besides Lake Oswego, some come from West Linn, Portland or Southwest Washington.

Lakeridge senior Eric DeStefano, a star varsity player, said coaching the kids has been a life-changing experience. He encourages other soccer enthusiasts to help out.

'Each kid needs individual attention,' he said.

For Megan Shiedler, a student at Our Lady of the Lake School, the time on the field supplements a full schedule of school, swimming and other activities.

'Most of them need a workout to keep them going,' Paula Schiedler said. 'If Megan had her way, she would probably be in front of the TV all day.'

Molly McWeeney's daughter, Erin, wakes up at 8 a.m. on game days, asking 'Is it soccer day, is it soccer day?'

'It's a countdown for them,' said McWeeney, of West Linn. 'It's a really big deal to these kids … and soccer is the perfect sport for kids this age.'

DeStefano and his co-coaches Turner Kerr and Benton Sowers agree that their work pays off in smiles on their students' faces.

So far, the Challenger team has played one game this season against a second grade girl's team. Each player on the team scored at least one goal.

Everyone in attendance - including the competition - felt the thrill of victory that day.

'The other team were good sports,' DeStefano said with a smile.

Registration for the Buddy Walk begins at 10:30 a.m. The walk begins at 11:30 a.m.

Individual registration is $15; couple registration is $30 and family registration is $45. The fee includes T-shirts and a post-walk lunch. To register online or make a donation, go to www.dsnor.org. For more information, call 503-636-4860.