Bill Wittman is not your typical soccer coach.
He spends most of his time off the sidelines, helping his sons Garrett and Matthew Wittman play the game by pushing their wheelchairs around the field.
Wittman's sons have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease that affects the body's muscles. Together, they are part of a program called TOPSoccer, which allows young athletes with disabilities from age 4 to 19 the chance to play an organized sport.
RIGHT: Anna Airhart, left, Hunter Crites, Brittany
Goodhart and Kaylee Cleer move along the field during a
TOPSoccer game at the
Elementary School. All four players are members of the Division II team for athletes with assistive
Tribune Chronicle photos / Kelly Smith
"They love it. The kids really feel like they belong. They're accepted playing a sport," said Wittman, who has been a coach for five years.
TOPSoccer is part of the US Youth Soccer Association and has existed locally for seven years. Players have a range of disabilities, from heart problems and asthma to cerebral palsy and spina bifida.
This year, 47 athletes are enrolled in the league, which aims to teach players about the game while allowing them to have fun.
n Part of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association.
n Players have a range of physical disabilities.
n This year, 47 athletes are enrolled in the league.
n Meets every Sunday through Sept. 26.
n Location: Former Cortland Elementary School building.
n For more information, contact Diane Weiner at 330-638-4124.
"Our expectation of the coaches is that they teach the kids to play soccer. So far, it's been amazing. Every kid has learned something," said program coordinator Cathie Licht.
Aside from teaching, TOPSoccer does much more to help its athletes.
Every athlete is part of a division based on their ability. Division III is for players in wheelchairs, Division II is for those who use assistive devices and Division I is for all remaining players.
Bill Wittman believes this setup is beneficial to the athletes on his Division III team.
"It's a great opportunity for them to socialize with kids in wheelchairs, and obviously they don't feel left out," Wittman said.
Licht said athletes benefit from the program in other ways, too.
"We've had kids who were nonverbal and now they're running around calling for the ball. They're amazing," Licht said.
Each TOPSoccer game is structured like those in other leagues, with a few modifications to time and field size. Every week, players spend a half hour practicing with their coaches and teammates before their games.
Michelle Airhart says her daughter, Anna, loves every minute she spends on the field.
Anna, 6, has cerebral palsy and uses crutches to walk. But that doesn't stop her from playing the game with heart.
"She'll tell you, 'I dominate. I dominated the field,'" said Airhart.
Many other players share the same sentiment as Anna and look forward to being part of the program every year.
They love the chance to play an organized sport and experience what Licht refers to as "typical soccer Sunday."
TOPSoccer meets every Sunday through Sept. 26 at the former Cortland Elementary School building. For more information, contact Diane Weiner at 330-638-4124.