HOLMEN — Before he joined Holmen’s adaptive sports team, junior Ethan Nelson didn’t have a place where he really fit in.
An avid sports lover but also a special-needs student, Nelson wasn’t able to play varsity sports such as football, his mother Julie Nelson said. The adaptive sports league gives students such as Ethan a place where they can interact with their peers and be accepted no matter what.
“All kids just want to fit in,” she said. “But these kids know they are different at a very young age.”
After joining the Holmen team, Julie said, her son became more engaged and more outgoing. Because Ethan loves athletics, she said the team will give him a special honor — just like other varsity sports, Ethan was able to earn a letter and will get a jacket later this year.
“It is something he is so very proud of,” Julie said. “It helps him feel equal to all his peers.”
The adaptive sports league started in 2012 when Onalaska coach Jim Cappuccio started a team at his school. Holmen coach Nick Slusser came on board shortly after that, followed by teams at Logan and Central high schools in La Crosse.
This year, the Holmen team is at capacity with 15 students, Slusser said, with male and female athletes from grades nine to 12. The league competes throughout the school year, with indoor soccer in the fall, floor hockey in the winter and indoor baseball in spring.
As coach, Slusser said, he treats the students the same as he would any athlete in a any varsity sport. Participants have after-school practices where they do warm-ups, drills and scrimmages. The coaching model is slightly different, he said, with an emphasis on learning and building skills that help students be successful.
The team dynamic relies heavily on peer interactions. Slusser said the athletes take on leadership roles, and learn team building skills with the sport.
“It’s about socialization and learning healthy lifestyles,” he said. “Sports let the students learn countless life skills you can’t pick up in the classroom.”
The league also has provided a number of opportunities for athletes after they graduate. Michael Walch is the team’s assistant coach, an experience Slusser said wouldn’t have been possible in a more traditional sport. Spencer Mahlum, another Holmen veteran, sang the national anthem at the Oct. 22 game versus Onalaska, and said his experiences on the team helped him go from being a follower to a leader.
Anthony Tressic, a Holmen senior, said he enjoyed being able to play in the league. He said he liked being an athlete, doing warm-ups, stretching and competing in the indoor soccer match, with passing and shooting some of his favorite activities.
Participating in the league is a good experience, he said, where he gets to learn new sports skills and compete with his friends.
“I enjoy being on a team,” he said. “And playing with my friends.”
“It’s about socialization and learning healthy lifestyles. Sports let the students learn countless life skills you can’t pick up in the classroom.” Holmen coach Nick Slusser