GREENFIELD — Eleven-year-old Luke Bertsch zipped by in his motorized wheelchair — sporting a bright green mohawk — and grinned at his parents and grandparents Saturday morning, after scoring a goal in a power soccer match at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Greenfield.
The Eastern Hancock sixth-grader has been playing power soccer for six years, ever since he was a little boy old enough to deftly operate the remote on his power chair.
A smile lit up his face Saturday as he cruised up and down the court, cheered on by family and friends in a doubleheader held at the church gymnasium over the weekend.
His mohawk was dyed green to match the color of his team, the Hotshots, who use black power chairs with bright green bars encasing the wheels in every match.
“You don’t want to use your own chairs in these matches because they’ll get beat up pretty quickly,” said Hotshots coach Angie Chaffee of New Palestine, whose daughter Lizzie, 13, is part of the team.
Power soccer has been taking place for decades in various countries around the world, according to PowerSoccerUSA.org. It has since grown into an international sport with 250 teams competing worldwide.
The United States Power Soccer Association governs the sport in the U.S., where teams play in four different levels, all the way up to the premier league that feeds into the U.S. National Team.
The Hotshots — who compete in the entry level of the association — are currently ranked first in their division among eight teams.
The team is composed of players ranging in age from 10 to 28, including three Hancock County teens. Two of the team members drive in from Ohio while Zach Arland — the lone adult on the team — commutes from his home in Muncie.
The players zip up and down the court in specialized wheelchairs, which can turn on a dime and quickly accelerate up to 6.1 miles per hour. That’s faster than Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps slices through the water.
In their latest matchup, the Hotshots twice defeated their opponents — the Inferno of Indianapolis — with a score of 4-1 in the first match and 4-3 in the second.
But the players say that winning isn’t what it’s all about.
“I enjoy the sense of community and the sense of independence it brings to my life. I like the competitive spirit it brings out in me,” said Arland, who works as a front desk clerk at a Muncie hotel.
Luke Pool, 16, of Eaton, Ohio, also said power soccer is a great outlet for his competitive nature.
Saturday’s matchup was a great opportunity for him to showcase his signature move — carefully lining up his chair with the ball before spinning a quick 360 degrees to whip the ball into play from the sidelines.
Thirteen-year-old Lizzie, a seventh-grader at New Palestine Junior High School, said power soccer has given her the opportunity to play a sport that’s typically centered around more able-bodied kids.
“I can’t get up and run around and do regulation sports, so I love that I can actually be included,” she said. “My favorite part is playing with my friends and meeting new people who are just like me.”
All six Hotshots players cited the social aspect as one of the best parts of playing power soccer.
The team typically drives an hour or two outside of Hancock County to play a match, which made this past weekend’s doubleheader in Greenfield a rare treat for the local players and their fans.
Shari Doud, the varsity girls basketball coach at Eastern Hancock High School, was thrilled to be able to catch her first ever power soccer game on Saturday.
She’s taught both Shelby and Luke B. at Eastern Hancock Middle School where she teaches language arts and social studies. She loved watching her students speed up and down the court.
“This was the first power soccer match I had ever been to, and I was so impressed at how they maneuvered and used their powered chairs,” she said.
“The power soccer game was no different than any other athletic team event that you see at any other level. The camaraderie, willingness to work together and communication on the court were clearly evident, just like any other team sport,” said Doud, an avid sports fan.
“I was just as impressed with Luke and his team as I have ever been at any other athletic function,” she said.
Chaffee said it’s an honor to coach such a determined group of athletes.
The team practices year-round, competing in tournaments from January through April, sometimes traveling as far as Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland.
“It’s a great group of kids,” she said.
While they’ve all found themselves in wheelchairs for a variety of different reasons — including cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, and spina bifida — they’re united by a love for the sport.
Chaffee said it’s incredible to see the level of camaraderie that exists among players across team lines.
“It’s a community, which is really awesome. Even though they may play against each other and be absolutely competitive, as soon as the whistle blows, they’re best friends,” she said.
Throughout the league, the majority of power soccer players are adults, which makes the Hotshots a bit of an anomaly.
“We have one adult and five children, so we’ve been maturing together. We’ve been learning and practicing and growing as a team, and it’s showing in our record,” Chaffee said.
The coach has been focusing on teaching the team mental toughness and precision through chair control as they learn how to best maneuver their chairs to connect with the ball in just the right way.
“It’s a lot like playing pool. How you hit the ball is really important,” said the coach. “You’ve got to find just the right angle to get the ball to go where you want it to go, which takes a lot of practice.”
She encourages the public to follow the Hotshots on social media and to catch a game sometime.
Each game consists of two 20-minute halves, with three forwards and one goalie on the court for each team at a time.
Admission is typically free, but donations are encouraged to help the Hotshots cover expenses.
“We cover our own fees and raise our own funds. Like any sport, all the travel and hotel rooms can get expensive, but it’s worth it,” said Chaffee, who can’t overestimate the value of seeing her daughter’s eyes light up as she zips up and down the court.
“Finding something like this where she can be out there and be accepted has been a blessing to our whole family,” Chaffee said.