Like Family. Meet Team Virginia Soccer.

Team Virginia Soccer has put in the work and their ready to compete for gold at the 2022 USA Games.

ORLANDO – They traveled together as a tight unit, but Virginia’s soccer players who will compete for a gold medal at the Special Olympics USA Games this week know the importance of spreading out.

They try to move around the field “like a diamond,” says Cole Clark, 23, one of the team’s top scorers. The configuration helps the four players on the field (in addition to a goalie) cover more space, thereby following Coach Lenny Wedge’s admonition: “Space is your friend.”

The eight athletes from the Roanoke area range in age from 22 to 55, but their emphasis is on “working together and passing the ball,” Clark says. Wedge and assistant coach Aaron Hall, who coaches bocce and whose brother Matthew is on the soccer team, emphasize teamwork over winning.

Well, up to a point.

“We’re still going to crush them, right?” Wedge says of the team’s USA Games opponents.

Sunday’s Opening Ceremonies ushered in a week of competition for the 51 Team Virginia athletes and thousands more from across the country. The games began Monday and will continue through a week that’s forecast to include plenty of afternoon storms.

That will be nothing new for the Roanoke crew, which has endured spring storms frequently during their Sunday practices. The rain hasn’t stopped them from training, and they reported to Richmond Friday afternoon in great shape for their trip south.

Team Virginia practiced each week in preperation for the USA Games.

There was Kareem Poindexter, who lost 22 pounds by exercising regularly. There was Zachary Shampney, who has been doing push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks and squats at home – “and drinking water, too.”

Nicholas D’Elicio, a midfielder who prefers offense to defense, came concerned about playing top teams from Mississippi and Pennsylvania. But he was confident enough to em-cee Friday night’s going-away dinner at Sheraton Richmond Airport Hotel.

Dale Edwards, the eldest member of the team, remembered playing soccer in the Netherlands several decades ago and winning a medal. This time, he says, he’ll get to meet Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Teammate Phillip Needham, who keeps in shape by walking a lot, was looking forward to some Disney World rides.

“I was fortunate enough to be hooked up with this awesome group of guys,” says Nate Calhoun, 33, a relative newcomer to the team who arrived last August. The team won gold at State Games in Virginia Beach in November, setting the stage for this week’s Florida adventure.

“We had to put in those months and months of hard work,” Calhoun says. “Nothing comes easy when you’re going to a tournament like this.”

The driving force behind the team is Wedge, 68, who began coaching Special Olympics more than three decades ago and returned around 2010 after raising a family. In addition to soccer, he coaches softball and basketball, and he helps with Little Feet and Big Feet track and field meets.

His softball team has won gold at the State Games six times, as has the soccer team. It’s a testament to Wedge’s work ethic; he doesn’t cut his players much slack.

“It’s all about fundamentals,” he says. “In every single sport I coach, we spend a lot of time on fundamentals.”

“He blows his whistle an awful lot at practice,” is how Calhoun puts it. “He tells us to ‘freeze!’ – and if we don’t freeze, he gets a little bit upset.”

That said, Wedge has instilled such a sense of teamwork that his players say they emphasize sharing the ball and the glory ahead of winning gold medals. That, he says, is more important than coming out on top.

“We’re family” is how Shampney puts it. To which Poindexter adds: “Like a TV show!”