GREENFIELD — Eleven-year-old Luke Bertsch came by in his motorized wheelchair – sporting a bright green mohican – and grinned at his parents and grandparents on Saturday morning after scoring in a power football game at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Greenfield.
The Eastern Hancock sixth grader has been playing power soccer for six years, since he was a little boy old enough to be adept at operating the remote control on his power chair.
A smile lit 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 wheelchairs with light green bars enclosing the wheels in every game.
“You shouldn’t use your own chairs in these games because they get beat up pretty quickly,” said Hotshots coach Angie Chaffee of New Palestine, whose daughter Lizzie, 13, is part of the team.
According to PowerSoccerUSA.org, Power Soccer has been taking place in different countries around the world for decades. Since then it has grown into an international sport with 250 teams participating worldwide.
The United States Power Soccer Association governs the sport in the United States, where teams play at four different tiers, all the way up to the Premier League, which feeds into the US national team.
The Hotshots — who compete in the association’s entry-level league — currently rank first in their division among eight teams.
The team consists of players ranging in age from 10 to 28, including three teenagers from Hancock County. Two of the team members are from Ohio, while Zach Arland – the only adult on the team – commutes from his home in Muncie.
Players race up and down the court in special wheelchairs that can spin on the fly and accelerate rapidly up to 6.1 miles per hour. That’s faster than Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps slices through the water.
In their most recent matchup, the Hotshots twice defeated their opponent – the Inferno of Indianapolis – by a score of 4-1 in the first match and 4-3 in the second.
But players say it’s not just about winning.
“I enjoy the sense of community and independence it brings to my life. I like the competitive spirit it inspires 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 demonstrate his signature move – carefully aiming his chair at the ball before quickly rotating 360 degrees to put the ball in play from the sidelines.
Lizzie, 13, a seventh grader at New Palestine Junior High School, said power soccer gave her a chance to play a sport that’s usually focused on stronger kids.
“I can’t get up and walk around and do regular exercise, so I think it’s great that I can actually be there,” she said. “My favorite thing to do is play with my friends and meet new people who are just like me.”
All six Hotshots players cited the social aspect as one of the best aspects of power soccer.
The team typically drives an hour or two outside of Hancock County to play a game, which made last weekend’s doubleheader at Greenfield a rare treat for local players and their fans.
Shari Doud, the girls’ collegiate basketball coach at Eastern Hancock High School, was thrilled to see her first-ever power football game on Saturday.
She has tutored both Shelby and Luke B. at Eastern Hancock Middle School, where she teaches language arts and social studies. She loved watching her students race up and down the court.
“This was the first power soccer match I’ve ever been to and I was so impressed with how they maneuvered and used their electric chairs,” she said.
“The power soccer game was no different than any other team athletic event you see at any other level. The camaraderie, the willingness to work together and the communication on the pitch were evident, just like any other team sport,” said Doud, an avid sports fan.
“I was more impressed with Luke and his team than I have been at any other sporting event,” she said.
Chaffee said it was an honor to coach such a determined group of athletes.
The team trains year-round, competes in tournaments from January through April, and sometimes travels as far away 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 reasons – including cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy and spina bifida – what binds them together is a love of sports.
Chaffee said it’s incredible to see the level of camaraderie that exists between players across team lines.
“It’s a community that’s really great. Even though they play against each other and are absolutely competitive, once the whistle blows they’re best friends,” she said.
Across the league, most power soccer players are adults, making the Hotshots somewhat of an anomaly.
“We have one adult and five children, so we grew up together. We’ve learned and we’ve practiced and we’ve grown as a team and it shows in our record,” said Chaffee.
The coach has focused on teaching the team mental toughness and precision through chair control as they learn how best to maneuver their chairs to hit the ball just right.
“It’s like playing billiards. How you hit the ball is really important,” said the coach. “You have to find just the right angle to get the ball where you want it, which takes a lot of practice.”
She encourages the public to follow the Hotshots on social media and watch a game at some point.
Each game consists of two 20-minute halves, with three forwards and one goalie for each team on the pitch.
Admission is usually free, but donations are encouraged to help the Hotshots cover costs.
“We bear our own fees and raise our own funds. As with any sport, all travel and hotel rooms can get expensive, but it’s worth it,” said Chaffee, who can’t overestimate the value when she sees her daughter’s eyes light up as she zips across the pitch.
“Finding something like that where she can be out there and be accepted has been a blessing to our entire family,” Chaffee said.