After a Burnsville girls' soccer victory a few years ago, coach John Soderholm didn't see the postgame handshake coming in his direction. The reaction from the other coach pegged Soderholm as rude and unsportsmanlike.
"I tried explaining my situation to the other coach, but he wasn't buying any of it," Soderholm said. "He thought I was lying."
Soderholm has retinitis pigmentosa, a stage of blindness. Doctors diagnosed the inherited disease in 1999, seven years after he began coaching freshman girls' soccer in Burnsville.
His vision is equivalent to looking through a paper towel tube. During games he stands farther from the sideline than is typical to get as much field vision as possible. Afterward, when the stadium lights go out, his wife is there to meet him because of the difficulty he has adjusting from light to dark situations.
"I don't wear sunglasses or always use a cane," Soderholm said. "I don't advertise that I'm blind."
Now in his sixth season at the helm of the varsity program, Soderholm's Blaze is 7-3-1 and ranked No. 7 in Class 2A.
"There is a big life beyond soccer," the soon-to-be 55-year-old Soderholm said. "I strive to be better in everything I do on a daily basis."
High school dropout
Growing up in Turtle Lake, Wis., Soderholm was a rebellious teenager whose problems had nothing to do with eye disease.
"I had a lot of fun doing things I shouldn't have been doing," said Soderholm, who dropped out of high school. "I couldn't take abiding by rules."
It took him a few years to realize he needed to change to become a successful adult. He got his GED (high school equivalency diploma) and entered college at age 22. He attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for one year before transferring to Minnesota, where he got his bachelor of science degree in education and master's in education psychology.
"I was given a second chance as a young man, and now I give back every day," said Soderholm, in his 29th year working in the Burnsville school district. He currently serves as a counselor at Metcalf Junior High School.
"I really enjoy helping kids," he said.
Reluctant coach at first
Soderholm got his coaching start in wrestling, which was the center of attention in his household growing up. His father, Bill, was a member of Mound's wrestling state championship team in 1947.
Soderholm coached at the ninth-grade level. Girls' soccer got added to his list of duties in 1992.
"I told the athletic director that I didn't know anything about soccer, but I knew a lot about girls," Soderholm said. "I was trying to be funny. The next thing I knew, I had the job."
Soderholm, who never played soccer, had to become a quick learner, taking lots of coaching courses and watching plenty of film, he said. "I was constantly trying to learn. I became a student of the game."
He decided to get out of wrestling and concentrate solely on girls' soccer while at Metcalf. He enjoyed the experience, noting that "you don't have the pressure or parental issues that you have in high school."
Much to his dismay, Soderholm was appointed the high school mentor in 2010. He said he "went into it kicking and screaming. I didn't want to do it. I said I would try it for one year. If I didn't like it, I was going back to the freshman team."
A year later, Burnsville was the state tournament runner-up, losing to Wayzata in a shootout. In Soderholm's five seasons at the helm, the Blaze has compiled an overall record of 71-21-8. It shared third place with Eden Prairie in the state tournament in 2013.
"Coaching refreshes me," Soderholm said. "It gives me a totally different perspective."
'It could be worse'
Soderholm will be the first to tell you that he is in good hands with his wife, Jenny, and two daughters, Maggie and Ellie.
"They're all very good-hearted," Soderholm said. "I really do have a good life."
He and Jenny are nearing their 26th wedding anniversary.
"Since he was diagnosed with the disease, we've always said that it could be worse," a teary-eyed Jenny said. "It's a path we're walking down together. It hasn't been easy."
His youngest daughter, Ellie, is a senior for the Blaze. She serves as one of the five team captains while keeping a close watch on her father. That includes driving him around; he stopped driving four years ago following an accident about which Soderholm says, " I couldn't live with myself if I injured or killed somebody in an automobile accident."
"I always want to make sure he is safe in his surroundings," Ellie said. "He is very caring and has always helped us. Now, we're helping him."
The couple also became more conscious of leading by example for their daughters.
"We wanted to demonstrate to our daughters that you still could live a full life, and follow your dreams," Jenny said. "John's been incredibly resilient. He looks for a silver lining in everything."
He doesn't have to with his immediate family, which tries to prevent those awkward moments — bumping his head on a cabinet, banging a leg on furniture or tripping while walking. They bring a smile to his face on a daily basis.
"To be able to help other people is a gift," Soderholm said. "The three of them have really helped me."
Cohesiveness on the pitch
Before Soderholm's arrival, the Blaze program hadn't been to the state tournament since the mid-1990s.
"Even though he's lost his vision he's still been able to coach superbly," Ellie said. "His coaching hasn't been hindered at all."
Senior defender Erin Fugh said this year's group has even taken it one step further. Fugh is also a neighbor of the Soderholms.
"I've never seen the cohesiveness that we have on this team," Fugh said. "We are a really close family."
One that brings plenty of humor to the field, just like its coach.
"He is one of the funniest guys I know," Fugh said. "He tells the cheesiest jokes. He's exactly the same way at home."
During games, Soderholm is always conscious where he positions himself on the field or sidelines. "I'm always looking to get more field vision,"said Soderholm, who gets plenty of aid from his assistant coaches, Scot Mattison and Megan Helberg.
"I've been honest with them about my situation since the first day," Soderholm said. "They both help me a lot. They don't let me embarrass myself."
Soderholm brings with him plenty of optimism, even when it comes to his vision.
"I keep up with all the information on the disease," Soderholm said. "Right now there is no treatment for it, but I hold out hope."
Ellie also brings out plenty of hope, especially knowing everything her father has accomplished after a rough start.
"Considering his childhood background, for him to be where he's at today would be like a 1-in-100 chance," Ellie said. "He's a remarkable man."
Ron Haggstrom • 612-673-4498