Like most team practices, the Monday workout at Patriots Park gymnasium began with players taking laps around the court. Then came a short water break, and the athletes moved right along, spending some time on tactics.
When the squad began to scrimmage, a sideline observer noticed something.
"What's that smell?"
Another guessed, "It smells like matches."
Then, with sudden realization, it hit them.
The Columbia County Fireballs play a mean game, and last week as the players sped around the gym in their wheelchairs, the smell of success was in the air.
As the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs' defending state soccer champions, the Fireballs have shown that agility, speed and mental toughness are not hindered by any physical disability.
Evans High School's Ryan Tharp is a believer. She is practicing with the Fireballs while doing a senior project based on the team.
"When I came out here the first day, I did not expect it to be like it is. It's so fast-paced, and just as exciting as a regular soccer or basketball game," Tharp said. "You would think, because they're in a wheelchair, their ability level would be lower, but they're just as good as any athlete."
The Fireballs are now in their fifth season, and in addition to the AAASP state soccer title in 2001, the team also has earned two state basketball championships.
The current soccer campaign got off to a good start when the Fireballs beat Macon 12-6 last Saturday at Patriots Park.
"We want to go to the championship again and win back-to-back in soccer," said Lakeside High School junior Israel Schulz, who scored 11 goals to pace the win over Macon. "We won two straight in basketball, and if we do it in soccer, we'll be the only team to repeat in both sports."
Matt Miklas, Kurt Lawton and Travis Lamb all are original Fireballs, and are back on the court this season. Lauren Giles and Ryan Peck also return, Sarah Williford is recovering from surgery and may be cleared to play soon, while Jalen rose and Bobbie Rouse are first-year Fireballs.
Donna Holloway says she didn't know much about the Fireballs before her daughter Bobbie brought home a permission slip to play soccer. Now, after watching Bobbie in action against Macon, Holloway is sold on the sport.
"I loved it. They did a real good job," she said. "I had more fun than they did."
That might be debatable - the Fireballs are having tons of fun. Finally, despite physical challenges, they're off the sidelines and into the game.
"This is her first time playing sports, the first time she's been invited to play sports," Sabrina Rose said of he 10-year-old daughter Jalen.
The Martinez Elementary School student wasn't daunted by the rigorous practice.
"It's not that tough," said Jalen, who admitted the first game was, "A little bit tough."
Tough is an apt description. During the match with Macon, two Fireballs had their manual wheelchairs torn up by Macon's power chairs.
Kurt Lawton was on the receiving end.
"Power chairs are not friendly," the Greenbrier High School freshman said. "They are our worst enemy."
Kurt also was the target of a few punches thrown by a disgruntled Macon player, but he retaliated the right way - by scoring a goal.
"It wasn't an easy win by any means," Fireballs coach Joni Lawton said. "It was a tough, competitive game. There were not than many injuries, but a lot of repairs to be taken care of."
As for the determination displayed by the Fireballs - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"We're going to try to have a perfect season," Israel said. "Just like the Titans."
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