Marcus Onsum remembers when people didn’t take adapted sports seriously.
“I can think of times back in the early ’90s,” the high school coach said. “Some of the kids loved playing, but they were still kind of picked on or made fun of in the halls at school. So they’d kind of hide from what they did.”
Not anymore. For Onsum’s adapted floor hockey co-op of five schools, a wave of success has brought the sport to the forefront. And at schools throughout Minnesota, adapted sports have evolved from a casual activity to an intense competition similar to football, basketball and hockey.
Onsum’s team competes in the physically impaired (PI) division and includes students from Hopkins, Mound Westonka, Robbinsdale Armstrong, Robbinsdale Cooper and St. Louis Park.
The team (13-0-0) has won the past three PI state titles. It’s riding an unbeaten streak of more than 50 games into this year’s state tournament Friday and Saturday at Bloomington Jefferson High School.
Onsum said he didn’t expect another undefeated season after graduating several key players. But led by top scorers Tyler Sarff and Joe Dubisar, the team mostly breezed its way through the regular season.
In light of their recent success, Onsum’s players are recognized at school pep fests, homecoming, SnoDaze and in the halls.
“Kids are getting high-fives walking between classes,” Onsum said. “They’re part of everything in the school, and they’ve really become recognized and for the most part accepted by the student body.”
Onsum has coached adapted sports since the mid-1990s, which makes him one of the most experienced coaches in the sport. But now that the sports have grown, many other coaches have stayed with it and built their own successful programs.
Dan Slinden, who leads the South Suburban co-op of five schools, said coaches have aided the sport’s development.
“I think it’s that consistency which brings the kids back year after year,” he said.
Slinden’s team isn’t one of the favorites at state, but it’s an unlikely story. The Flyers started the season 1-7 before winning five of their past six games, including a 17-2 victory against Maple Grove in the playoffs.
“We only have 11 teammates, and our guys just kind of gelled together,” Slinden said.
South Suburban’s success has been a balanced effort, and its defense has been especially solid of late. The team has allowed only nine goals in the past four games, including a shutout by senior goalie Callie Johnson.
Onsum said his team’s toughest competition at state will come from Dakota United, Brainerd/Pillager and Rochester.
Three teams lead CI division
The other division of adapted floor hockey is for cognitively impaired (CI) students.
In the north half of the CI state tournament bracket, the No. 1 seed is North Suburban, which includes students from Centennial and Spring Lake Park.
In the south half, the No. 1 seed is the co-op of Belle Plaine, Jordan, Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United and New Prague.
North Suburban ended Anoka-Hennepin’s run of three consecutive state titles last season, and both teams have had excellent 2013-14 seasons.
One sleeper team is the co-op of Maple Grove, Osseo and Park Center, which is seeded No. 3 in the north bracket.
The team has won its past nine games after opening its season with losses to Anoka-Hennepin and North Suburban.
The team’s top player, senior Tasha Feigh, recently set team records for assists in a single game and for a career. Her success playing against boys earned her the nickname “Bulldozer.”
“She goes up against the guys, and she’s not afraid of them,” coach Kelli Waalk-Gilbertson said. “She plays hard no matter who she’s playing against.”
Waalk-Gilbertson’s team will face the co-op of Burnsville, Farmington, Lakeville North and Lakeville South in the first round at state.
Charlie Armitz is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.