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Wheels of Steel

It's the off-season, so to get our adrenalin fix, we baseball fans have to turn to other sports. We've already reported from our trip to see the Coyotes, and some day we plan to do a jai-alai write-up [no lie, that's a great spectacle: shame the nearest venue is about 2,100 miles away from Phoenix]. But closer to home is Power Soccer, which we got to see down at ASU last weekend. That was courtesy of snakecharmer, who was in Phoenix with the rest of her team, the San Jose Steamrollers, for the Western Regional tournament.

It's a game for powered wheelchair users, with the chairs modified somewhat with the addition of a front guard - this is used to drive a large soccer ball, about 13" in diameter towards the opponents' goal, and also protect both the chair and the participant. There are four players in play for each side at any time, with additional ones on the bench: the court size can vary, but is generally about the size of a basketball court. It's not a full-contact sport, so falls a little short of Murderball, as wheelchair rugby is called, but is definitely a physical contest - inevitably so when you have two players going for the same ball. Though my initial reaction when charmer was describing it to me, was that it'd be cool if they customized the chairs with flamethrowers, chainsaws and so forth, as in Robot Wars or Battlebots. Y'know: Extreme Power Soccer. Meets Mad Max. In the Thunderdome. Er, just me, then. ;-)

The San Jose Steamrollers
Coaches: Robert, Don
Back row: Ed, Chris, Paul, Corbett
Front row: Keith, Jerry, Jenny (a.k.a. snakecharmer)

Five teams were taking part in the regional tournament; the first stage saw each play the other four, and the top two then met in the final. charmer and San Jose made it through to face Berkeley there - but were perhaps the underdogs, having lost to Berkeley in the round-robin stages. Before the game, the chairs of the participants underwent speed trials: to ensure a level field of play, there is a limit of 10 km/hour set - so nitrous oxide kits would be of no help. Interestingly, only forward speed was checked, not reverse or rotational velocity. The last-named is of particular importance, as the favored technique in dead-ball situations, is to spin the chair on the rear wheels axis, so that the side of the guard strikes the ball. By practice, the ball will then shoot off in the required direction, with surprising pace.

Berkeley presses towards the San Jose goal

There were a large number of team-mates, friends and family down the sideline as the game started - and this was a good thing, as they could explain the rules to novices like myself and Mrs. SnakePit. The most important one is that no double-teaming is allowed: any 2-on-1 action received a quick whistle from the referee. Backing into an opponent also resulted in a foul being called on the perpetrator. And it was this offense that resulted in the first goal of the final: after a tense, hard-fought opening to the 20-minute first half, a Steamroller player reversed into a Berkeley player in the penalty box. The resulting shot was calmly put away to leave San Jose 1-0 down at the break. Undaunted, they roared back in the second period, first leveling the score and, almost immediately afterward, taking the lead. But Berkeley were not done yet, and tied the game at two with just a few minutes to go.

There was no further scoring, so the game moved into overtime: two halves, each five minutes long. Both teams had chances to clinch the contest, but neither could convert there, meaning it came down to a penalty-shootout. Each player on each team gets a shot at goal from a distance of 3.5 meters, while the opposing keeper tries to stop it, though they are not allowed to move until the ball is put in play. San Jose took the early advantage after Berkeley missed their second attempt, but were unable to finish the opposition off - the Steamrollers saw two of their shots glance agonisingly outside, off the post. After attempts by all the players on each team, the score was still level, and we started round again. San Jose made their fifth shot; Berkeley couldn't, and the Steamrollers took the match in the most exciting and tense way imaginable.

The final shoot-out: we can hardly bear to watch...

Certainly, it couldn't have been a much better introduction to the sport; two top-level teams, going full-throttle at each other, with the game only decided by the very last kick. Imagine your first baseball game being an extra-innings thriller, decided by a walk-off home-run. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about here. Initially, I will admit, it was a somewhat odd to watch - but the longer it went on the more we forgot about the disabilities of the participants, and just saw the game. By the end of the contest, we were completely engrossed: hell, I wouldn't mind having a go myself! I'm sure I'd probably suck utterly, of course, but it'd be fun. At least until someone loses an eye. ;-) Many thanks to charmer for introducing us to the sport, and we look forward to her report from the finals.

Game Notes

  • The nature of the sport means that it's unisex: men and women play on the same team, which is kinda cool. There are two divisions for different skill levels, but there is no apparent concession for level of disability.
  • I was going to start a fight in the bleachers: I'm British, and that's what we do at soccer games. However, there were no bleachers available, so that plan was scrapped. ;-)
  • Team USA, including a couple of Steamroller players and one from Berkeley, won the World Cup in Japan last October. The final saw them beat France, in another game that went to sudden-death penalty kicks.
  • If you're curious to see some more of the game yourself, here's the video from the 2007 World Cup in Japan.
  • The Steamrollers' site can be found here
  • They now go on to the Nationals with a psychological edge as Western champions. These take place in Atlanta this summer: charmer has already checked the schedule, but sadly the Diamondbacks are not playing the Braves at that time...

Jenny tells Jim the shoot-out is over,
and he can now open his eyes again. :-)