Power Soccer players fight through obstacles

January 14, 2013
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Karen Mansfield / Observer-Reporter
Andrew Cunningham, 13, and his father, Tom Cunningham, a Charleroi High School graduate who now lives in Syracuse, N.Y., visited the Mon Valley area for the United States Power Soccer Association’s Steel City Invitational held at Charleroi High School. Andrew plays for Central New York United, one of USPSA’s top-ranked teams, and Tom is an assistant coach. Order a Print
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Karen Mansfield / Observer-Reporter
David Dowling, 13, of Fort Wayne, Ind., warms up for a Power Soccer game. Dowling’s Turnstone Flyers were one of four teams who played in a tournament held at Charleroi High School. Order a Print

CHARLEROI – Power Soccer players are accustomed to adversity.

Using power wheelchairs because of disabilities or accidents, the athletes fight through obstacles every day.

So the major snowstorm that blew across the country on the last weekend in December didn’t stop four U.S. Power Soccer Association teams – including one led by Power Soccer World Cup MVP Michael Archer – from trekking to Charleroi Area High School for the Steel City Invitational, the first Power Soccer tournament ever held in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Tom Cunningham, a 1978 graduate of Charleroi Area High School who now lives in Syracuse, N.Y., organized the invitational so that players could introduce the sport to power wheelchair users and sports fans.

“It’s a great sport,” said Cunningham, whose 13-year-old son, Andrew, plays for Central New York United, one of USPSA’s top-ranked teams in the country. “It gives them an opportunity to do something competitive with teammates; doing something they never thought they’d get the opportunity to do. They’re very competitive. They want to do well for themselves and their teammates.”

The other teams who competed were the Bennett Blazers of Baltimore, Md., the Circle City Rollers of Indianapolis, Ind. (which features Archer, a student at Purdue University and member of Team USA, which won the first ever Power Soccer World Cup in 2011) and the Turnstone Flyers of Fort Wayne, Ind.

The game, developed in the 1970s in France, is the first competitive sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Power soccer participants include people with quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, head trauma, stroke, spinal cord injuries and other disabilities, according to www.powersoccerteamusa.com.

Two teams of four power chair users – using metal footguards attached to the chairs – attack, defend, and spin-kick a 13-inch soccer ball in attempts to score goals. All of the rules of regular soccer apply.

“I base my life around power soccer,” said Peyton Sefick, 21, a psychology major at LeMoyne College in Syracuse and CNY United’s team captain. “We’re not just a team, we’re like a family now. When we travel, we caravan together, and we hang out in hotel rooms together. We spend a lot of time with each other.”

Cunnigham estimates that CNY United has traveled about 25,000 miles over the past three years to participate in tournaments.

Cunningham said one of the reasons he wants to help start a team in the Pittsburgh area is to provide more competition for teams in the Northeast.

In 2006, there were just six power soccer teams. In the past 10 years, approximately 70 teams have formed across the United States, but they are scattered throughout other regions of the country, and CNY United often has to drive out west or to southern states.

“We really would love to see the sport get started up in Pittsburgh,” said Cunningham. “It would reduce travel time for us.”

Cunningham, a son of Tom and Helen Cunningham and a standout baseball player when he played at Charleroi, contacted Charleroi athletic director Bill Wiltz, who arranged for the tournament to be held in the auxiliary gymnasium at the high school sports complex.

Andrew, who has muscular dystrophy, has been playing power soccer for more than five years and is one of the youngest athletes in the CNY United program.

Last year, CNY United won the United States Power Soccer Association Champions Conference Cup on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in Fort Wayne, Ind., and moved into the Premiere Conference, the top level of competition of the USPSA.

Andrew’s other CNY United teammates include engineering student Skyler Canute, college graduate Tony Reuter and Hunter Shafer. Jim Sefick is the head coach, and Cunningham is an assistant coach.

“It’s a great group of kids for Andrew to be around, very bright,” said Cunningham. “They tell Andrew, ‘This is what you can do with your life.’ They’re great role models and very inspirational. But they also want to win. They go fast and they have very good control of their chairs. There’s no way I can make those chairs move the way they do. They’re spinning blindly and they have the confidence that they’ll be fine. They work hard and they play smart, and it shows when they’re playing. Andrew doesn’t want to lose.”

For information about Power Soccer, call 315-345-1941 or 412-260-8529.

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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