Once Andrew Thomasson yells “green light,” a mass of kids begin dribbling the soccer ball toward the goal.

Then, upon Thomasson’s “red light” command, they suddenly stop.

The process is repeated a few times, giving the kids with physical and mental disabilities a chance to play soccer alongside their high school volunteer “buddies.” It’s part of the TOPSoccer program that Thomasson brought to Columbus as his senior project.

TOPSoccer, which stands for “The Outreach Program for Soccer,” is a community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities, organized by youth soccer association volunteers. Thomasson, who helped lead Columbus East to its first sectional title in 10 years, used to volunteer at Developmental Services Inc. (DSI) and wanted to incorporate soccer into those kids’ lives.

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So Thomasson looked into leagues for mentally challenged kids who play soccer. A member of Indiana’s Olympic Development Program (ODP), he used the help of the Indiana ODP director’s wife, Joy Carter, who is the head of TOPSoccer in Indiana, to start a program in Columbus.

The first two weeks, about 20 kids came out to Richard Wigh Soccer Complex to participate with Thomasson and some of his teammates and friends. Among the volunteer “buddies” were a couple members of the rival Columbus North boys soccer team and a couple players from the sectional champion East girls soccer squad.

“It’s not so much about soccer; it’s just having fun,” Thomasson said.

Thomasson’s goal was to have one buddy for each player. By the end of the first session, everyone knew each others’ name

“You get to have fun,” said Kamden Hiquet, 10, a fifth-grader at Parkside Elementary.

About 70 percent of the kids who participate in TOPSoccer, including Hiquet, have autism. His mother, Nancy Hiquet, runs a support parent group called Columbus Autism Network.

Nancy Hiquet’s nephews play with Dynamo FC in Indianapolis and work with the TOPSoccer program there. In Central Indiana, some of the TOPSoccer teams play each other.

Thomasson will be heading off to Drake University on a soccer scholarship next year. He hopes someone else will pick up the organization of the TOPSoccer program next year and in years to come.

Kamden Hiquet plays in Columbus’ Parks and Rec league. But his mother said that’s a lot harder for him because he doesn’t always know exactly what to do on the field, and that’s why she’s glad Thomasson started the TOPSoccer program.

“It’s really needed here,” Nancy Hiquet said. “Our kids with autism have an extra hard time participating in an inclusive setting without a buddy. This is so much fun for (Kamden).”

If you go

Columbus East senior Andrew Thomasson is hosting TOPSoccer, a free, community-based training and team placement program for athletes with disabilities, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Oct. 28 at Richard Wigh Soccer Complex.

The program is designed to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to players 8 and older who have a mental or physical disability.

Before participating, players or their parents must fill out a registration form, which can be found at columbusexpress.com under Programs and TOPSoccer. For more information, contact Thomasson at columbusindianatopsoccer@gmail.com or 812-343-0173.

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.