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June 26, 2021

By Akiem Gardner

One of the many detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on high school sports this season was the limited opportunity for teams to build chemistry.

With remote learning and fewer practices and in-person engagements, it has been more challenging for coaches and athletes to create the trust and comradery required for on-field success.

For Skyline High School’s junior varsity and varsity girls soccer teams in Ann Arbor, Michigan, engaging in the RISE multi-week leadership program allowed players and coaches to bond through open and honest dialogue and helped propel the varsity Eagles to their first-ever regional championship.

In the RISE program, players learned, listened to one another and grew as leaders. The program educates and empowers participants to be leaders in discussing and addressing matters of racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusivity within their teams, schools and communities.

“We lost a lot of team bonding because of the pandemic,” said Tai Tworek, a senior co-captain at Skyline. “To be able to get together in a different way and kind of share some vulnerability with each other, I think gave us a unique opportunity to bond and do well on the field”.

Tworek was one of 21 varsity girls’ soccer players who participated in the RISE program, which creates a safe space for athletes and coaches to engage in difficult conversations regarding race, privilege and identity while teaching skills such as leadership, perspective taking and teamwork. In addition to these valuable conversations and skill-building opportunities, what stood out to Skyline players were the relationships and chemistry they built by embracing the challenge of discussing at-times difficult issues and topics.

Players from Skyline High School's varsity soccer team participate in a virtual RISE session.

“I think we learned more about each other … and more about who we are and what we know and that is very powerful,” said Co-captain Sophia Morgan, a junior. “These are hard conversations to have, but I think that after [talking about] those topics it definitely brought us together as a team.”

After completing the eight-week virtual program, Skyline won its first-ever regional title with a 2-0 victory over Canton High School. Their season came to an end in the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Division 1 state semifinals, with the team falling to Troy Athens High School in June. The team acknowledged how much the RISE program played a role in their overall growth and chemistry.

“RISE really emphasized leadership, and how every single one of us can be a leader,” Morgan said. “It was just really amazing to watch toward the end of the season, as more [first and second year players] began to step up and take on more of a leadership role in gaining more confidence on and off the field.”

Team captains also shared the importance of learning about concepts such as privilege and bias.

“We live in Ann Arbor, so to be able to see the privileges that we have and the full scope of them, it really opens your eyes to those biased thoughts and different perspectives,” said Tworek.

Added Morgan: “For me, RISE did a great job of explaining the fundamental concept of being privileged and bringing awareness to a topic that a lot of older adults don’t fully understand.”

Skyline head coach Christopher Morgan echoed his players’ takeaways.

“In Ann Arbor, we are in a bubble, growing up here you can become a little oblivious,” he said. “I love the outcome of RISE. I think the girls said it best, you have to show some vulnerability. You have to open your eyes, and you have to open yourself up to the program in order to get something from it. Like a proud father. I could not be more proud of my players and their ability to be vulnerable”.

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