Adaptive field hockey is in season at MPS, which means the team, coached by Greg Smith and Sasha Ryshkus Knutson, have the opportunity to compete against athletes throughout the state for the Minnesota State High School League title. As with all adaptive teams at MPS, the team is made up of students from across the district who play hockey at gyms with mats bordering the playing field to prevent the puck from flying under the bleachers.
Disabled MPS students in seventh through twelfth grade can play any or all four district-wide adaptive sports– soccer, field hockey, softball and bowling– during their respective seasons. Some students choose to play every adaptive sport, giving them the unique opportunity to be four-sport athletes.
Each adaptive sport has two leagues, called the PI and the CI, for students who are physically or cognitively impaired. The biggest difference between the leagues is that the PI league, for students with physical disabilities, prohibits running in each sport to level the playing field. There are about 13 teams per sport in the MSHSL.
Coach Smith has coached the teams for all seven years that they’ve been district-wide, and before then he coached the Edison adaptive teams. The transition to district-wide from school-based teams boosted the team’s numbers. There are about 12 to 14 athletes on each team, Smith said. He’s been a special education assistant at the district for 23 years, and before coaching adaptive sports he coached middle school basketball, softball, baseball and football. Coaching adaptive athletics was a natural transition for him because he already knew many of the athletes from his classes.
“Throughout my entire career it’s just been a joy to be around the kids and I had my coaching license, and I thought, on a whim, I’ll give [coaching] a try,” Smith said.
Smith coached the 2022 bowling team to a state championship and the 2022 soccer team to a third place finish at state. He focuses on the fundamentals of each sport during practice, along with drills and scrimmages. The teams practice once or twice a week, depending on how many games they have that week.
“I’m one of the coaches where, and the parents can really appreciate it, we really coach our guys up,” Smith said. “We don’t use excuses and I like to think that my kids don’t use excuses.”
One of the challenges the teams face is busing. Since the sports are district-wide, students bus in from their respective schools to practices and games. While Smith said the district usually has a bus available for games, sometimes practice buses slip through the cracks. The lone eighth grader on the team couldn’t make it to practice one week because there wasn’t a bus available.
Another challenge is securing gym time at South High for games. Smith and the athletic director organize gym space for games prior to each season, but sometimes they double-book and the adaptive team has to reschedule or move their game. Smith said that one hockey game had to move to Feb. 6 because of a South basketball game on Feb. 2, but there was another basketball game on Feb. 6 as well and the hockey team had to move the game to the opponent’s gym.
Watching the athletes learn the game is still a joy to Smith.
“When it’s their first time, they can be a little apprehensive, even the parents can be a little apprehensive, and they look up and you can see those same parents cheering the kids on, laughing and having fun,” Smith said. “The highlight is seeing the joy on the kids’ faces after having a great season.”
When asked for a lowlight of the past soccer season, Smith couldn’t think of one.
“We’re not focusing too much on any of the low things,” he said.
As for the current field hockey season, Smith hopes to finish strong before going into the spring double-season of softball and bowling.
“We’re going to be ready to defend our title in bowling,” Smith said. “We had one of our seniors graduate last year, but I have a new senior that I think can step up in their place and do a fantastic job as well.”