Johnny Perez, a center at Park Center Senior High, is off to the races along the right touch line. He turns and fires a cross toward his teammates in front of the goal, but the ball ricochets off a wheelchair.
Most soccer players don’t have to check for wheelchairs before they pass the ball, but for Perez, who is a captain of Osseo Area Schools’ (ISD 279) PI adapted soccer team, it’s just another part of a unique sport.
The objective of the game is the same: get the ball into the back of the opposition’s net without using any appendage beyond the shoulder. But there are several key differences: the game is played indoors and with six players (including a goalkeeper), two of which defend in wheelchairs.
Adapted soccer is a fast-paced sport. Goal kicks boom back into play off of walls and players juggle passes to jockey for possession. Players’ speeds have to be checked once in a while, however — they must maintain a semblance of a walk while pursuing the ball, though the referees, who call the players by their first names, are a little lenient in this regard.
There are plenty of tactical nuances too. Instead of using kickoffs as an opportunity to build through possession, teams sometimes choose to fire the ball off the wall behind their opponents’ goal, a sort of rebounding set piece that provides an immediate chance to score. Defenders in wheelchairs swivel to make a impenetrable blockade in front of the net, only allowing enough space for their goalkeeper to dive out and intercept a stray ball.
“It’s really fun to play,” said senior Hayden Audette, a defender and captain. “But it’s also really fun to watch too.”
Indeed the game is ideal for spectators. Scores often reach double digits, with goals coming from all manners of putting the ball in the net. Fans also watch the action from a distance more common in basketball, meaning there’s an element of risk as the ball flies into the crowd.
Adapted sports are also unique in their lack of specialization. Where many young athletes begin to focus playing one sport year-round at a young age, adapted sports rotate between soccer, bowling, floor hockey and softball, giving athletes chances to participate in plenty of different games.
The Robbinsdale/Hopkins/Mound-Westonka Robins are the defending state champions for the Minnesota PI division and look to be up for another run at the crown, though the District 279 team will hope to push them down the stretch. The state tournament will take place November 16th and 17th at Stillwater High School.