When Mary Hautman collects questionnaires from outgoing seniors at Rosemount High School each spring, a smile crosses her face at one particular answer on the line inquiring about a fondest memory.
"A lot of them list 'going to state' at that part," Hautman said. "They see it as their reward, but for me the kids are the reward."
Hautman is a job coach at Rosemount, working with students who have cognitive disabilities to prepare them for an independent life after high school. She's also a coach for the Dakota United adapted athletics program, which brings together students with physical and cognitive impairments from eight south metro high schools to compete year-round.
In the spring, Hautman is the head coach for the Hawks' varsity cognitively impaired adapted softball program. Beginning Thursday at Coon Rapids High School, that team, along with Dakota United's physically impaired squad, enters the state tournament with a perfect record.
"They love playing together and knowing they're playing sports just like all the other kids in school," Hautman said.
In 1992 the Minnesota State High School League became the first governing body in the country to sanction adapted athletics.
"We treat the varsity team just like any other varsity team," said Rosemount athletic director Mike Manning, who has been involved with adapted athletics for 17 years on various boards and committees. "And it's fun to see how competitive the kids can get with it. I've got a couple who stop by my office every day to let me know how things are going."
Those involved two decades after the first adapted athletics competitions certainly don't equate their sports to football or basketball. But while team spirit and having fun is taught just as much as competitiveness, the latter comes on strong at this point in the season.
"I like to hit the ball as far as I can," said Dakota United CI first baseman Quintin Nicolay, who was named to the all-tournament team after helping the Hawks to a third-place finish at the adapted floor hockey tournament last winter. "The best part is trying to play as hard as we can. And winning."
Hautman's Hawks picked up the No. 1 seed in the South and will open the CI tournament at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 4 North seed Minneapolis Roosevelt.
Looming on the other side of the bracket is the only other undefeated team: Two-time defending CI champion Anoka-Hennepin, seeded No. 1 in North.
The Mustangs defeated the Hawks en route to both of their titles: in the championship game in 2010 and in the semifinals last spring.
"We're in the running but those northern teams tend to be a little stronger," Hautman said. "We hope to make a run at it. It'd be nice to win."
And if not?
"The best part is playing with your friends every day," pitcher Ricky Arends said. "[And] it is fun to play teams from the north because we don't know how they played in the season."
Besides, Hautman said her players tend not to dwell on losses for long. Especially if there's an extra stop on the way home.
"These kids go, 'Oh, we're going to Dairy Queen?' and the loss is forgotten," she said, laughing. "They don't hang onto it as long. It's not as important.
"They're oblivious to a lot of the negative things in the world that we see and hear about. When they get up to bat, they have nerves like any player. But they're in a happy place, a better spot than we are sometimes."
Dakota United's PI team also opens state play against Anoka-Hennepin. That game is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
Two other teams with south metro ties -- Burnsville/Farmington/Lakeville and Chaska/Chanhassen/Prior Lake/Shakopee -- are in the CI bracket.
Brian Stensaas • 612-673-4127