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    Team's goal: fun, learning

    Kids with disabilities and those without learn from each other through soccer.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


    LARGO -- Holding her body as steady as possible, Sarah Siesel stands in front of the goal.

    Slowly and carefully, she moves her leg toward the ball. She misses.

    Sarah, 15, tries again, but still her foot glides past the ball.

    "Kick it, Sarah!" yell the parents on the sidelines.

    Teammate Lizzie Carr, 7, comes to the rescue. With one strong kick, the ball zooms into the net.

    Goal!

    Players and spectators erupt in cheers. Sarah's face breaks into a big smile.

    Right now she is a soccer player, not a teenager coping with cerebral palsy. For one hour each week, Sarah joins 17 other children ages 5 to 15 who overcome a variety of obstacles -- including Down's syndrome, paralysis, seizures and autism -- to play a game.

    "I see smiles. I see happiness," said Steve Siesel of Seminole, Sarah's dad and soccer coach. "When you see these kids score a goal and they light up and they throw their hands up, it's just pure joy."

    The team is part of TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer), or TOPS, a 9-year-old U.S. Youth Soccer program designed to give mentally and physically disabled children a chance to participate in organized soccer. It is one of a handful of TOPS teams in the bay area and draws youths from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. Nationally, more than 5,000 kids have participated.

    The TOPS team is one of 36 teams that belongs to the Seminole Junior Warhawk Athletic Association. The squad of eight girls and 10 boys wraps up its third season Friday at the Warhawks' field off Walsingham Road in Largo.

    "It's really a neat experience," said Siesel, who has coached the team for three years. "It's really a labor of love."

    November through February, Siesel, 42, and his wife, Linda, 47, organize and coach the Friday evening soccer games. They said what's neat about their program is that the TOPS players compete against "normal" kids, who often walk away from these games with a better understanding of dealing with persons with disabilities and a deeper sense of appreciation for their good health.

    "We always win," said Siesel, a local television news photographer. "I think it's an understanding that it's important for our team to have a good time and to experience play."

    Friday, it was the Bombers under-10 girls' turn to play the TOPS team. Although the Bombers and members of the league's 34 other teams play with a competitive spirit against the TOPS team, they're more concerned about assisting the TOPS players than scoring their own goals.

    "I feel good that I'm helping somebody," said 9-year-old Katelin Foley, who lives in Seminole and is in the fourth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School.

    Katelin's dad, Ed Foley, coaches the Bombers. As a physical education teacher at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center in Pinellas Park, he deals on a regular basis with kids who have disabilities.

    Foley, 36, said having kids without disabilities participate in organized sports with special-needs children can be an eye-opening experience for them. "They can see that these kids are more like them than not like them," he said. "They're just out there playing a soccer game."

    Siesel said he founded the TOPS team at the Warhawk field in 1999 because he wanted his daughter to have the same opportunity to play organized soccer that his sons, Billy, 12, and Kevin, 10, had. The team grew out of a baseball program for youths with disabilities that he and his wife started five years ago.

    "Most of these kids have brothers and sisters who play sports," Siesel said. "It gives them the opportunity to enjoy sports, too. It also gives them the opportunity to play with the (Warhawks') other teams."

    That's what Georgia Pappas of East Lake likes about the program. Pappas, 37, said children with mental and physical handicaps often only interact with others with disabilities. That's unfortunate, she said, especially for kids without disabilities.

    "Those kids someday are going to be her future employer," said Pappas, who works in the training department at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "They also have an opportunity to learn what she's all about and that she's a a real person with likes and dislikes and goals. It's not like a regular soccer game. It's more of a goodwill game."

    Pappas said the Friday night soccer game is her daughter Irene's favorite activity. Every Friday, Irene, 13, points to the calendar and reminds her mom about soccer. This season is her second year on the squad.

    Lizzie, who assisted Sarah Siesel in making TOPS' first goal Friday, also is finishing her second year on the team. At the age of 1, a developmental delay was diagnosed in Lizzie, said her mother, Sarah Carr of Safety Harbor. But after receiving treatment at the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens in Clearwater, Lizzie is in a regular classroom at San Jose Elementary, she said.

    Carr, 37, said the soccer games improve her daughter's self-esteem and motor skills. But more than anything, they offer her a fun time.

    "That's what Friday nights are about," she said. "She loves it."

    - Staff writer Maureen Byrne can be reached at 445-4163 or at byrne@sptimes.com.

    For information

    To learn about the TOPS team or to register for next season, call Steve Siesel at (727) 595-7752. Registration is $45. To inquire about Spirited All-Stars, a Seminole Junior Warhawk Athletic Association baseball team for children with special needs, call Dan Martin at 397-8157. Registration costs $25. The season begins in March.

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