Photo by Emily Buss
Rod Schwarz, head coach of the WSHS adapted floor hockey team, gathers his players into a huddle during a scrimmage in the Winona Middle School gymnasium.
Only a few seconds remain on the shot clock. It’s the third period and the score is tied. The Winhawks need a goal. The puck is passed to sophomore forward Charlie McGrory, sometimes playfully referred to as the "Frozen Forward." He stands with the puck, uncertain of where to shoot, until the goalie on the opposing team starts calling him toward the goal. Players on both adapted floor hockey teams lead him to the net and the opposing goalie lets the puck slide between his legs. The packed gymnasium goes wild, and Charlie smiles.
While every game for the Winona Senior High School (WSHS) adapted floor hockey team isn’t this poetic, it is often a heartwarming experience. Formed during the 1999-2000 school year, the adapted sport has given an athletic opportunity to many special needs students who otherwise would not have had the chance.
Early last week, the 12 members of the adapted floor hockey team suited up for practice, with senior goalie Brandon Comero sporting a "The Puck Drops Here" shirt in the appropriate school colors—orange and black.
For an hour and 15 minutes, twice a week, the three girls on the team, eighth grader Haylee Collins, and 12th graders Kenzie Brist and Courtney Scharmer, are each just “one of the boys.” As key members of the winning team, the girls are just as passionate about the sport as their male teammates.
“I like being on offense,” Collins shouted loudly amid the other simultaneous answers from her teammates when asked what makes this sport so great. “And, I like scoring.”
Talk of points prompted other team members to shout out their goal tallies, with senior Shane Spalding proudly admitting he is the team’s leading scorer.
Floor hockey is just one of four adapted sports offered to seventh-through-12th-grade students in the Minnesota High School League, and while it is the only adapted sport at WSHS, athletic director Brad Berzinski said it is a beloved extracurricular.
“When you watch these kids in practice or in a game, it’s just pure excitement and it’s so genuine,” Berzinski said. “Their reactions to each other and to the game are just wonderful.”
For the last nine years, Rod Schwarz, former Winona State University baseball coach, now adapted floor hockey head coach, has helped transform the hockey team into a winning one. Now 3-1 for the season, the Winhawks are unstoppable.
“This team gives them a sense of pride and a feeling of belonging that can’t really be measured,” Schwarz said. “These athletes gain confidence and leadership skills that translate into greater success in school, at home, and in our community.”
Confidence and a sense of belonging is what Charlie’s mother, Liz McGrory, said was the best part of her son’s involvement on the adapted floor hockey team. Charlie, who is living with Down syndrome, was inactive and uninvolved as a young child. When she signed Charlie up for the team three years ago, she was hesitant, but knew he would thrive.
“When he first started he would just stand there, but as he progressed into high school he began to move around more,” McGrory explained. “I think in practice he caught on a lot and he has developed more. The cool part about this hockey team is he now has friends. He has friends that are like him and understand him.”
When Schwarz separated the team into two groups of six, the scrimmage match was similar to that of any other sports team. The team practiced setting up plays, passing the puck around the gym, and playing solid defense and offense. The only distinct difference is when several teammates needed a little extra encouragement, regardless of which team they were on, the support was there.
“When these kids take the floor, there is just this sense of pure sportsmanship,” Schwarz said. “They support each other like no other team I’ve ever worked with.”
Recently, the Winona Chapter of The Red Men’s Club held a fundraiser for the team and donated brand new letter jackets for the players. The effort, which Schwarz said was “out of the blue,” solidified their place in the high school athletics department.
“These jackets were the highlight of the athletes’ year,” Schwarz said. “They are really proud to walk into a game with their jackets on and it really makes them feel part of a team.”
The practice ended with a quick one-on-one exercise that pits player against player in a mad dash for the puck resting on the blue center line. The first person to reach the puck had a better chance of scoring on the opponent, but each goal was a victory for the entire team. And, regardless of who scored, the whole team cheered.
“Selfishly speaking, I walk out of the gym after every practice and game with a huge smile,” Schwarz said. “I feel very blessed and fortunate to work with these athletes. Watching our players give their absolute best, while keeping a healthy perspective on winning, is surely a treat.”
This week, the Winhawks adapted floor hockey team will host their last two home games of the season, and the healthy competition brings out a winning spirit in his team, Schwarz said. The team will square off against Burn/Farm/Lake tonight and will play New Prague on Thursday. Both games begin at 4:30 p.m. in the Winona Middle School gymnasium.