Minnesota is the only state in the country with adapted sports leagues for high school students with cognitive or physical impairments. On Friday and Saturday, 16 adapted soccer teams will compete at Stillwater High School for state titles in the cognitively impaired (CI) and physically impaired (PI) divisions. Here is a look at four of those teams:
The Mustangs (9-0), last year's defending state champion, are led by coach Sue Opat and bring one of the most experienced teams into the state tournament. Four seniors in the starting lineup — Ben Schmitz, Kai France, Joey Manion and Mia France — have all "played very important leadership roles," Opat said.
Goalkeeper Manion anchors the Mustangs' defense, and defenders Schmitz and Mia France are rarely out of position. Opat said midfielder Amanda Walen helps limit opposing team's shots with quick decisionmaking.
Offensively, Opat said, the chemistry of Kai France, Tyler Ezell and Stevey France is evident.
"If one feels they can carry the ball into the zone, the other one will come out to the center position," Opat said. "Their passing is the best that I have seen from any team I have ever coached."
Fourth-year coach Lorrie Buecksler said the Hawks are playing like a family and thriving on coming together for a common goal of capturing their first state championship since 2006.
To do so, Dakota United (9-0) will rely on junior captain Riley Wisniewski and his five years of state tournament experience.
"He is an amazing captain and team player," Buecksler said. "He has the heart and mind for the game and our team. He is kind of like everyone's big brother and is probably the best captain we have ever had."
With five eighth-graders on the Hawks' roster and 14 underclassmen total, Wisniewski's guidance has been vital all season, especially in practice, according to Buecksler.
As the lone senior on the team, Kyra Patterson is one of the team's toughest players and a force for opposing teams to handle, the coach said.
Blake Jackson, Gabrielle Stahl and Sam Gerten get considerable playing time and play big roles, Buecksler said.
South Washington County
For the first time in his coaching career, John Culbertson played every player on the South Washington County roster in a varsity game, resulting in each Thunderbolt earning a varsity letter.
"That is what adapted sports is all about," Culbertson said. "To get these kids to experience what traditional kids experience."
The Thunderbolts (11-0) earned their 20th state tournament berth and are seeking their first state championship since 2014. Culbertson is in his 15th year with the program and fifth year as coach.
After the Thunderbolts lost their all-state goalie last year to graduation, Culbertson decided to switch junior Bryce Smith from forward to goaltender. Smith scored the game-winning goal two years ago in the state championship, but Culbertson felt having one of the Thunderbolts' best athletes in net was best.
Senior Casey Murnan plays center defense. Culbertson said the combination of Murnan's defensive leadership and Smith's athleticism is why South Washington County is giving up less than a goal a game.
Justin Neff, the only other senior, leads the team in goals and has five hat tricks in 10 games.
"Everything goes through him," Culbertson said.
Teddies coach Michael Wright took over the program five years ago, and the team has reached the state tournament in four of the past five seasons.
Wright credits the support of Roosevelt's administration for the Teddies' success but also realizes he has a roster of talented athletes.
Three four-year starters — Elijah Jackson, Hunter Collins and Allen Chalmers — lead Roosevelt (8-1).
"I am surprised by how much they have matured over the years," Wright said. "They have learned so much more about the game."
Jackson "never gives up," Wright said, and his competitive drive is a large reason he is the Teddies' second-leading scorer. He and Chalmers share time in net. Wright said Chalmers, who is the team's leading scorer, is a great athlete with a difficult shot to defend.
Collins is the Teddies' most versatile player, Wright said, able to play anywhere on defense and offense.
"We went undefeated last year, but when we got to state, we realized it takes defense to win because we got scored on a lot," Wright said. "This year we concentrate on our defense to keep the score down, but at the same time we are still scoring."