The players of the South Washington Thunderbolts jumped off the bench when the clock hit zero at East Ridge High School. The team had just earned a berth to the state tournament, and the players were celebrating accordingly.
The Thunderbolts are one of 18 teams statewide in the cognitively impaired division of adapted floor hockey. On Wednesday, the team defeated North/Tartan 13-2 to advance to the state tournament starting on Friday.
The cognitively impaired division has seen growth over the past five years, Thunderbolts coach Jeff Figlmiller said, and the sport is making progress toward more respect in the community.
"Having this around is just great," Figlmiller said. "They've got a place to go. They're making so many friends right now."
Adapted floor hockey under the auspices of the Minnesota State High School League also has a physically impaired division. Most teams in both divisions are programs that combine students from multiple high schools and middle schools to ensure they have enough members.
The physically impaired division, which includes 13 teams, also begins its state tournament Friday at Bloomington Jefferson High School.
The Thunderbolts are a combined team of athletes from Woodbury, East Ridge and Park high schools and middle schools. For eighth-grader Tyler Tinucci, who was credited with scoring four goals in Wednesday's game, it's his favorite part of the sport.
"There's rivals like Park and East Ridge, but there's people that come together and be one team together," Tinucci said.
While the cognitively impaired division has seen increased membership and growth in the number of teams over the past five years, some teams in the physically impaired division are struggling to maintain their numbers.
Marcus Onsum, coach of the Robbinsdale/Hopkins/MoundWest physically impaired adapted floor hockey team, has been coaching adapted sports since the mid-1990s. He recalled consistently having 20 to 22 kids on his team.
He said his team now has 10 to 11 students as he's had a tougher time selling his program to prospective students and families.
"More often than not it was, 'Thank God you got into touch with me. I've been dying to find something to get my kid involved with,' " Onsum said. "Now, my personal perception is that for some reason, at least some families … think twice about getting involved in the program."
Onsum attributed the lower numbers to a misperception about adapted sports as well as more sports opportunities available for kids with physical impairments, such as wheelchair basketball or sled hockey.
Beyond the numbers, however, Onsum said he has seen both divisions of the sport earn more respect over the years.
"For the most part they've earned the respect of their schools, the students, staff and people in the community," Onsum said. "They really, truly are seen as varsity sports now."
Figlmiller, who has noticed the same thing, said he wants to make sure adapted floor hockey teams get treated the same as other high school sports.
"We want them to have that high school experience, too," Figlmiller said. "I want everything the other sports got. I do a parent night. I do a senior night. We're getting a booster club together."
While the sport is gaining more respect, both divisions have room for membership growth and still need a shift in perception, Onsum said.
"These are varsity level, competitive high school sports. I don't think everybody sees it that way," Onsum said. "I think some people see it as community-ed or Special Olympics or for fun things. Our kids are so phenomenal and they thrive on competition just like all their other non-disabled peers. It's a such a thrill for them."
Mike Hendrickson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.