One athlete is on their living room couch, another is in their family room easy chair, yet another is in their bedroom. While miles apart all are competing together as a part of Washougal High School’s Special Olympics Unified Rocket League for e-gaming. And their teamwork paid off with Team Lightning taking home the State Championship and Team Raptor grabbing third place at the competition played March 6-7.

The Unified Sports model combines Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals who are typically developing) as teammates on sport teams for training and competition.  “It was hard for students when typical and unified school sports were cancelled last year,” said WHS Unified coach and Jemtegaard Middle School art teacher, Dani Allen. “And this group is often one that gets overlooked. So the Special Olympics created this new competition to make connections to others and be involved in something that was important to them.”

Rocket League is one of the most popular e-gaming programs in the world.  It pits two three-person teams against each other in a competition much like soccer.  Players control cars on a green grass field image and use a high level of teamwork to bump the ball down the field to land it in the opposing team’s net. The team with the most scores wins the game.  In a tournament every match is a best of five game series.  Some of the fun and challenge is that the cars are rocket cars and can be given a rocket boost to make dramatic plays and bumps.

WHS fielded two teams with a total of seven players, with five athletes and two partners.  The State Champion and undefeated Lightning team is Jason Meulton 8th grade; Aidan Davis-Cosmo, 11th grade; and Daniel Wood, 9th grade.  Team Raptors took third in state are Kaitlynn McKee, high school transition program; Erica Allen, 10th grade; and Brayden Kassel, 9th grade.  Joselynn Lake, high school transition program, was the team’s alternate/sub who practiced with the team and was ready to fill in at a moment’s notice.

Allen got her start as a Unified sports soccer coach in Spring of 2015.  She also coaches basketball and now e-gaming.  “When I saw this new opportunity, I thought ‘Come on Dani. You’re a gamer, you can do this,’” she said. “I really wanted to make sure this group did miss out. Participation on a Unified Team provides students an opportunity to use sports to bond, create friendships and work together as a team.”

The teams started practicing in January. “It was a rough start,” Allen admits.  “It took about three weeks to figure out technical issues like how to get everyone connected, download software on consoles and then learn the program to host practices and have private matches.” Practices were held once a week via Zoom and lasted about 40 minutes.

Another fun first step for team members was to create “gamer tags”. For instance, Lake called herself “jose_a_lion,” Wood played as “Stinky” and McKee was “kdogg987.”

Allen said it was rewarding watching individuals improve and learn how to work as a team.  “In the beginning, one of our first-year athletes asked teammates to just let him score,” she said. “We talked about how it’s not about letting everyone score, that scores had to be earned.  Besides, it’s not fun to just have a score given to you.”

In the final championship match, Allen is proud that everyone on Team Lightening scored. “And no one on the opposing team was letting anyone do anything,” she said. “The scores were all earned.”

In fact, the final game of the championship match was particularly exciting.  The opposing team used the strategy to “bump” Team Lightning’s cars to make it harder to score.  When a car is bumped it can spin and be disorienting which is frustrating and takes time to recover.  And if the bump is hard enough, the player’s car can be “demolished” and disappears for a short time, taking them out of the game. “That game was so intense, and Jason, Aiden and Daniel all got to score and help the team win,” she said.

Another life lesson was learned when Team Lightening and Team Raptor had to play each other earlier in a competition.  The winner went on to the finals and the loser would play for third or fourth place. “Team Lightning had an excellent team member and Team Raptor asked that he not play so hard to let their team score more, or to even lose on purpose because the other team wanted it more. We met and talked about this on Zoom, and it got emotional,” said Allen.

Allen told her teams to take a breather, that what everyone was saying was right.  There was no one who was wrong.  But no matter what happens it is still a win for Washougal and for our community.  “As long as everyone is doing their best you are doing fine,” Allen told them.

During the match, the teams did not blow each other out, they played fairly, they cheered each other on and even though they were playing each other, they knew they were a team. Team Lightning won the match, and when it came time for Raptor to play their next game, everyone was cheering them on.  And with the Raptors taking third place, it was now time to cheer on Lightning in the final championship match that earned them first place.

“We were just so lucky to get all of the team members we did,” said Allen.  “But I need to give three special shout outs. Daniel was our voice of reason and helped keep emotions in check, Brayden was a great team captain and Erica was our most inspirational cheerleader for everyone.”

“It’s a fun experience to help out and to be a part of the team,” said Brayden Kassel, a Unified Team Partner.  “The best part is seeing everyone’s face when they score, whether it is in basketball, soccer or in rocket league.  They light up instantly.”

Allen believes organized e-gaming may reach the general student population at WHS in the next three years.  “There are several staff members that would love to get it started,” she said. “There is also a company trying to recruit high schools to play e-sports. It would be so good for our community to have this opportunity for kids who don’t play other sports to be a part of something.”

When athletes were asked about the best part of Rocket League Jason Meulton said “Playing and having a good time.” KaitLynn McKee said she enjoyed “Playing Rocket League with friends.  Joselynn Lake agreed saying, “It was great getting to see my friends.”  For Erica Allen, she “liked the chance we had to get together and play Rocket League and not just sitting at home being bored.”  “It was FANTASTIC,” said Aidan Davis-Cosmo.

“I am proud of these students who tried something new and came out on top,” she said.