Mentoring role leads to elevated play for Patriot

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Heritage Hills’ Darby Vinson, right, and Rebeka Mercker celebrated after the Patriots claimed the Class 1A girls soccer sectional championship by defeating Forest Park on Saturday in Bretzville. Vinson converted a penalty kick in the second half as her on-field performance has received a boost from teaching students with special needs every day. Saturday, she and the Patriots will battle No. 4 Providence in a one-game regional at Clarksville.

Herald Sports Writer

For the moment, Darby Vinson has to do her best to sidestep trouble.

It’s staring the Heritage Hills junior midfielder right in the face. Literally. And the soccer field is nowhere in sight.

Every afternoon, Darby spends time with two students who have special needs in the high school’s resource room, acting as a cadet teacher for 20-year-old Alex Gogel and another student — students in Indiana can attend high school until the age of 22. Improving social skills is the goal, and activities include coloring and navigating Internet searches.

On Wednesday, the regular special education teacher isn’t in the room. She’s elsewhere in the school, and although Darby and two substitutes are around, Alex becomes concerned. She seems frightened. Tears well up in her eyes and she isn’t sure what to do.

So Darby steps in.

She tells Alex it’s all right. Everything is OK. The brown-haired girl, wearing jeans and a blue sweatshirt and sitting in a chair, looks up at Darby, standing a foot away.

“Really?” Alex asks.

Darby nods, and Alex relaxes, wrapping her arms around Darby’s waist in a hug. Alex also smiles, allowing her braces to show.

It may not seem like it, but what just happened is a big reason why the Heritage Hills girls soccer team is playing in Saturday’s one-game regional at Clarksville. The Patriots are set for a 5 p.m. CDT encounter with Class 1A No. 4 Providence, which upended Heritage Hills 4-0 in last year’s regional.

The Patriots are back after downing Forest Park in last Saturday’s sectional championship, during which Darby scored a second-half goal on a penalty kick.

Heritage Hills coach Doug Satterfield says there are four or five girls on the team whom he can rely on for penalty kicks. But picking Darby, who also recorded the winning penalty kick in last season’s sectional championship shootout, to take the attempt last Saturday was “a no-brainer.” That’s because Darby has the composure needed in such a high-pressure moment, Satterfield says.

He would know, since he’s seen that demeanor elsewhere.

Last year, Darby began hanging out in the resource room, where Satterfield works part time. She thought about spending more time with the students once she saw the difference she could make.

Not everyone has what it takes to spend time with students who have special needs. But once a connection is made, the impact is unmistakable.

“Those kids are drawn to people that they know care about them,” Satterfield says. “They just love her to death.”

Satterfield said Darby’s role in the classroom has helped her remain patient on the field. When you can easily defuse an upset and a startled student who’s grasping to understand something simple, such as a teacher not being in a room, trying to outwit a goalkeeper doesn’t seem so difficult.

“I feel like I am more patient and I can be there for the team,” Darby says.

After Darby calms down Alex, the two walk over to a row of computers. Darby helps Alex search for pictures of Blueberry Muffin and Lemon Meringue dolls — friends of Strawberry Shortcake — and then grabs a printout of the latter. Alex colors the picture yellow, orange and blue, and then playfully taps the markers on Darby’s head upon finishing.

“It teaches me to be grateful for what I have, and to be a better person,” Darby says of being with Alex. “I’m a lot nicer to my sisters (11-year-old twins Marlee and Grace). I feel like I’m more patient with them and I listen to them more.”

The school day is just about finished, and just like always, Darby accompanies Alex outside to the bus. They walk through two sets of double doors and down four steps onto the sidewalk. Alex clings to Darby’s right arm the entire time. A few moments later, Alex hops forward, catching up to Darby, who’s managed to get a few feet ahead. Now their two-minute walk is complete. The bus doors open, and Alex walks on.

For the moment, she has her back turned to Darby, who’s waiting to hear her requisite goodbye.

Finally, Alex flashes one last smile and obliges. Darby reciprocates the gesture. The two will see each other again the next day. Darby wouldn’t miss it for anything.

“It changed my life,” Darby says of teaching the students. “I love it.”

Contact John Patishnock at

More on