Kelli Waalk puts together an all-star lineup for scrimmages with her cognitively impaired adapted soccer team at Park Center.
Because of small numbers, nine on the team, Waalk has the coaches and a couple of alumni scrimmage the players. It gives the defending state CI adapted soccer champs quite the challenge.
Former Pirates star and current assistant coach Tasha Feigh, the 2014 Minnesota Adapted Athlete of the Year, scrimmages. So does Alex Kreidler, another recent Pirates standout and current team manager. Waalk said both Feigh and Kreidler still compete post-high school with the Special Olympics.
“That’s huge to have those kids who can play at that high level and really, really push the current team,” Waalk said.
It helps since most teams the Pirates face have closer to 20 players, creating an advantage for substituting players in and out of the seven positions in the game. That doesn’t faze the Pirates, though. Last year’s squad won the state title with just seven players.
Park Center, with convincing victories en route to a 9-0 record, looks poised for a repeat at the state tournament Nov. 18-19 at Stillwater High School. A co-op formed with students from all three Osseo Area School District 279 high schools — Osseo, Park Center and Maple Grove — the Pirates have all the ingredients for winning.
Pirates defenders and senior goalkeeper Joe O’Hotto shut down opposing offenses by allowing an average of just 2.75 goals per game. The offense piles up 10.63 goals per game.
“We’re scoring a lot of goals,” senior defender Cole Brambilla said.
Freshman Alfred Konneh leads the team in goals with 36, and sophomore forward Phillip Worzie has 29. They often draw double-teams but find ways to make other teammates succeed.
“Once they start passing it, then the other team starts having trouble keeping up with us,” Waalk said.
Passing may make the Pirates more dangerous than any other aspect of their game. Senior defender Jason Robins plays a role in that with 22 assists. Fellow defender Mohammed Konneh, a sophomore who is Alfred’s brother, focuses on passing, too.
“The goal is pass the ball forward,” Mohammed Konneh said.
Mohammed Konneh and Brambilla moved to defense this fall since Waalk didn’t have any returning defensive players. Moreover, O’Hotto just started playing varsity goalkeeper this fall.
“He’s just been amazing in goal,” Waalk said.
Park Center’s eighth victory was a 13-4 defeat Oct. 25 of Anoka-Hennepin, a team they edged 7-6 on Sept. 27.
“We did way better than last game for sure,” O’Hotto said.
Park Center also defeated St. Cloud Area Thunder (7-1) on Oct. 18. Waalk said her team’s passing again played a major role in the 15-3 victory.
A thin bench doesn’t slow down the Pirates. Conditioning in practice helps.
“We’ll play 10 minutes hard and take a break, and then go for 10 minutes hard and take a break,” Waalk said. “That helps build up the kids’ endurance because we know that there’s going to be a lot of games that most kids aren’t going to come out of the game.”
Each half of a CI adapted soccer game lasts 20 minutes. Minnesota State High School League rules require a stop in play for substitutions every five minutes. Teams get up to 10 minutes for a halftime break.
Park Center will need endurance to defend its title at the state tournament, to be held Nov. 18-19 at Stillwater. The teams play three games in two days.
“If we keep playing like we do, we have a legitimate shot to be back in the championship game,” Waalk said.