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Santa Maria hosts Special Olympics Floor Hockey qualifying tournament

Santa Maria Times - 1/26/2020

Jan. 26--It was a special Saturday at the Santa Maria Fairpark ... a Special Olympics Saturday.

Seven teams of Special Olympians from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties filled the Fairpark Convention Center for a day of floor hockey.

"This is a qualifier for the championships of all of Southern California," said Michael Lara, the Special Olympics Southern California sports manager. "In order to qualify for the Southern California championship tournament, teams have to attend at least two competitions.

"That gives us the chance to collect enough data so that we can place each team in the correct division," he explained. "All these teams were in Bakersfield last Sunday. So now they're here for their last qualifier."

The tournament was split into two brackets; Red and Blue Divisions.

The Kern County Thunder won the gold medal in the Red Division, with the Santa Maria Ducks earning silver and the Santa Barbara Dolphins taking the bronze.

In the Blue Division, the Lompoc Braves won the Gold, with the Kern County Condors earning silver, SLO Tigers bronze.

The Santa Barbara Penguins placed fourth in the Blue Division.

"We finished third in Bakersfield," said Jon Geisler, 41, a forward on the SLO Tigers. "It was a lot of fun. I love the game. It's a contact sport and I love contact sports.

"I've been playing since I was 16 years old," he continued. "I'm good at both ends of the rink. I have a lot of experience but sometimes I make mistakes.

"It's fun playing against the other teams to see if they're good, but we're good. I like to win but sometimes we lose -- it happens."

Much like ice hockey, floor hockey has six people on the ice -- three forwards, two defensemen (or women) and one goalie.

"But we don't play periods like ice hockey, we play lines -- nine lines that go three minutes each makes up a game," Lara said. "What happens is that at the end of each line, the teams have to change all five floor players. They can keep the goalie, although some teams use two goalies, but all five floor players have to swap out.

"It becomes a strategy game for the coaches because they have to determine which five players work together the best and which lines from the other team they want to match up against."

The players must wear helmets, shin guards and gloves so they don't get injured if they're hit by a stick or puck.

The puck is an 8-inch felt donut that only weighs about 3 ounces, and the sticks, which resemble broomsticks without bristles, have a padded felt tip.

"The pucks glide really nice on this type of surface," Lara said. "It's actually pretty awesome."

Once the puck drops, the action is intense as both teams battle for possession, work to complete perfect passes and get shots on goal.

The games are extremely competitive, with most being decided by only one or two goals.

"I just love watching it," said Michelle Ennis, whose 26-year-old son, Ross, plays for the Santa Maria Ducks. "I love the sportsmanship. A lot of these players have known each other for years and have played against each other for years.

"They develop friendships with the other players. I know Ross can't wait to see his friends. But it's also nice as parents because we develop friendships as well."

"It's challenging but it's rewarding at the same time," said Ducks assistant coach Yndira Amavisca, whose son Elias is on the team. "Just when you think they can't understand the game, they surprise you, they remember everything, and if you get a win, it's a bonus.

"My son loves this so much," Amavisca added. "He can't wait for the games. If we get to a competition five or 10 minutes early -- we're late."

"As a parent, you love the joy you see in their faces when they win -- or even when they lose -- and the joy they have when they get their medals is something you never forget," said Ennis.

"I just wish we had more volunteers," said Amavisca. "We can never get enough volunteers."

But one group of volunteers on hand Saturday came from three separate Knights of Columbus Councils.

"They came out to cook for the players, coaches and their families," said Lara. "They donate everything, the food, drinks and their time."

"We cooked up 250 hamburgers today," said Javier Baro. "Everybody gets a burger, chips and their choice of juice or water.

"We have members from Our Lady of Guadalupe Council, St. Louis de Montfort Council and La Purisima Council," Baro said. "We're known for helping out Special Olympics, and this is our sixth year we've done this for their hockey tournament.

"We all come together, put in a few hours and feed everyone. It always makes us feel good. This was a slam dunk."

The teams will be heading back to Bakersfield on Feb. 29 for the Southern California Championships.

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(c)2020 Santa Maria Times, Calif.

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