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In this competition, every player is a winner

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Ten soccer teams competed against each other during the Under the Lights Invitational Soccer Tournament at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax Oct. 17. Unlike most athletic competitions, all of the participants came out winners. 


“I am always looking for opportunities where our disabled community can showcase their talents and abilities; and what can be better than competing under the shining lights of an athletic field with a pep band playing and hundreds of spectators cheering,” said Porto Charities President Leo Alonso, whose daughter, Vivian, competed.

The teams, with names like Mason Nation, United Blue and Green Machine, were invited to compete because seven of them have players with special needs who are alumni of the PVI Options program while the other three teams comprise current students with special needs from PVI, Bishop O’Connell Catholic High School in Arlington and Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax.

The annual tournament is Alonso’s brainchild, but he was quick to credit the students and faculty for helping to make it possible.

“I am the ideas person, but Under the Lights is made possible by everyone at PVI,” Alonso said.

Set during Paul VI’s Spirit Week, which coincides with homecoming, many students see the tournament as an opportunity to take pride in their school and make the extra effort to affirm each member of the student body. 

“It is just a great way to be able to make sure our learning partners know how important they are as members of our student body,” said Andrea Cadima, a junior and peer mentor in PVI Options, a program designed to integrate students of all learning abilities throughout the school community. 

In addition to cheering during the tournament, Cadima helped set up the field to accommodate five simultaneous games of five on five. 

This year was especially significant as PVI Options is celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

“There’s a ton of participation by the peer mentors and the rest of the students, but what makes this year so special is it is the 20th anniversary. We all have our differences and whether those differences are learning differences or any other difference, it doesn’t matter. Here at PVI, we see everyone as equals.” said Peer Mentor Coordinator Casey McLellan. 

After Deacon Thomas L. Grodek opened with prayer and the National Anthem was sung, the game clock lit up and the repurposed football field took on the aura of other game nights: cheerleaders chanting for their teams, coaches barking orders at their players and the crowds cheering.

“It’s such a fantastic event across the board for all of these teams to be out here in this environment,” said Glenn Farello, PVI basketball coach. “You can just hear the excitement. It’s really special.” 

Farello estimated that about 20 of his basketball players showed up to support those on the field. Another coach, Gary Underhill, described the tournament as one of the highlights of the year.

“It’s always an awesome experience to have all of my alumni come back, and for me to see how much they’ve grown up and where they’re now heading out to,” Underhill said. “I can’t ask for anything more.”

He serves as the coach for the Special Olympics team for PVI Options and was instrumental in prepping the field for the night’s games.

At the end of the tournament the soccer players were called up individually to receive medals.

Jennifer Mustachio, the mother of one of the players, said that Under the Lights exemplifies the ethos of the high school.

“It’s something that we’ve waited for his whole academic career,” Mustachio said, referring to her son, Dominic, and his inclusion as a PVI student. “This school embraces him and gives him a chance to be a star. It’s everything that you hope for.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018