SHERIDAN — The five players stood in a circle and warmed up by passing a soccer ball to each other with the kicker calling the intended recipient’s name. Sometimes the ball careened past the player and they jogged to retrieve it or track down another rogue ball in the fairgrounds’ Exhibit Hall Monday evening. Later, the soccer players corralled cross-field passes and dribbled past defenders en route to scoring a goal and celebrating appropriately.

Though US Youth Soccer’s The Outreach Program for Soccer specifically supports young athletes with mental and/or physical disabilities, Sheridan County’s TOP Soccer practices held Monday evenings look much like any youth soccer program’s practice. Such was the goal when Big Horn High School freshman Emma Prior and her father Chris founded Sheridan’s organization last year and began practices this March. 

“I just love seeing the smiles,” Emma said. “They’re always so happy. I love soccer, and I love seeing these kids smiling and growing their love for the sport and being able to fall in love with the sport, a chance they might not have gotten any other way.”

Emma frequently cheered on her sister Brianna Prior, 17, during Monday’s practice and teased her when playing defense, and the TOP Soccer program was born of the sisters’ relationship and mutual love for the game. Brianna used to play sports more frequently, encountered medical problems and couldn’t play at the same level as before while Emma continued to play soccer as a striker.

When Emma had to complete a language arts project in which she had to identify a problem in Sheridan and create a solution, she thought of how children with physical and mental disabilities like her sister didn’t have the opportunity to play soccer. Emma found TOP Soccer, a national organization, and saw Cheyenne and Casper fielded clubs as well. 

After reaching out to the other Wyoming club presidents to learn more, Emma applied for a grant from the Wyoming Soccer Association last year and founded Sheridan County’s TOP Soccer program. The coronavirus delayed the start of the program’s season to this year, and TOP Soccer remains free to participants, who receive a T-shirt and soccer ball after joining. 

“Seeing how much fun the kids have, seeing them get better each week and have fun doing it,” Chris said, “that’s where I get the most enjoyment.”

Chris grew up playing lacrosse in New York but has since coached Sheridan Storm soccer teams after moving to Wyoming. He facilitates practice, accepts celebratory hugs from players and enjoys watching both the TOP Soccer participants and volunteers who “buddy up” with each other and foster a love for the game. 

Emma, Chris and fellow Big Horn freshman Kelanie Lamb took turns encouraging the three other players Monday. Lamb, who has played soccer since elementary school and been friends with the Priors for nearly as long, shares Emma’s appreciation for watching the players grow and develop their skills.

Monday’s team of six included 11-year-old Courtnee Zukowski, who high-fived the TOP Soccer volunteers and celebrated her teammates’ goals during practice. Zukowski hadn’t previously played soccer because an organization like TOP didn’t exist in Sheridan to support her physical needs, though her enthusiasm and frequent goal scoring Monday portrayed her love for playing with peers. 

“She loves it, and she’s excited to come and do it,” Zukowski’s mother Samantha said. 

Chris anticipates increased involvement from Storm soccer coaches and players in the future as the soccer season progresses, and said the TOP Soccer program’s goal is to host an exhibition game against another Wyoming TOP Soccer team during the Bighorn Mountain Cup May 8-9.

Registration for Sheridan County’s TOP Soccer program is free and ongoing, and anyone with further questions or who is interested in participating can email sheridantopsoccer@gmail.com

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