A local high school student overcame adversity, with the support of her family, coaches, team and community, to become the first special needs student to play a varsity sport at Shaker High School.
On Oct. 16, Shaker High School’s girl’s varsity soccer team held its Senior Night to honor the senior class. But the highlight of the halftime ceremony was the ovation that Gianna MacPhee, a student with Down’s syndrome, received when her name was called.
Albany County recently honored Tara O’Keefe, the girl’s varsity soccer coach, for her work as a mentor and a coach. When O’Keefe isn’t coaching, she works as a housing specialist with the Albany County Department of Mental Health. She is responsible for developing, maintaining and promoting mental health opportunities in the county.
“Not only because she’s a county employee do we want to recognize her, but it really takes a coach’s commitment to allow a kid with special needs to play on the team,” said Albany County Supervisor, Dan McCoy. “It should also go to show, not just to Albany County, but the surrounding region, that if you have a kid with special needs, they can participate in the same sports.”
What makes playing on the soccer team even better for Gianna is the fact she’s a teammate of her sisters. Gianna’s younger sister, AnnaLisa, is a junior who has been on the varsity team all year, and Adrianna was brought up from junior varsity for sectionals. Gianna said playing with her sisters motivates her to try harder, and that her favorite thing about soccer is just having fun and playing with the team.
Gianna had played soccer before, but it was under Coach Michael Brehm, the ninth-grade girl’s soccer coach and family friend of the MacPhees. It was he who suggested that Gianna join the school team.
“I treated her no different than anyone else. She did everything the other girls did. She ran with the other girls and practiced with other girls,” Brehm said. “She really changed the team and the program here at Shaker.”
As Gianna moved through the ranks, coach O’Keefe has been there to support her and called her up to varsity her junior year.
“She has shown me that sports is more than wins and losses, and if we work together, we can bring out the best in youngsters,” O’Keefe said. “Gianna has taught us all so much, and I am hopeful that she will serve as an inspiration to others.”
Gianna’s parents, Roland and Virginia MacPhee, couldn’t be happier with coach O’Keefe.
“I’ve told her so many times I wouldn’t want anyone else coaching my kids,” said Roland.
What doesn’t come across on a scorecard or in stats is Gianna’s inspirational dedication to the team. She hasn’t missed a single practice in four years and is eager to get on the field rain or shine. She was chosen as team captain for Shaker’s home games.
After sectionals this fall, Gianna won’t be able to compete on the field but she will still remain part of the team. Coach O’Keefe has asked her to come back as an assistant coach next year. She has also been invited to the Regional Best Buddies workshop to talk about overcoming obstacles and what she has accomplished.
“I think it’s great and an inspiration from the coach here to say to everyone else out there, don’t look at someone and say whether or not they’ll be a starter, everyone adds something to the team. It proves here after four years of playing, that you can do it,” McCoy said.