Going all in

Going all in

Hard work, grit, and a lot of laughter. This is what it takes to get to the national championships.

Photographs and words by Fred Zwicky

Seventy years after hosting the first national wheelchair basketball tournament for its collegiate team, the University of Illinois once again played host to the 2019 College National Championships held at State Farm Center.

For the men and women’s teams, the journey to the tournament was filled with early morning practices on the courts at the Activities and Recreation Center, training workouts at Disability Resources & Educational Services, countless hours in game review, extended road trips for tournaments across the country, as well as the challenging academic workload of an Illinois student. Those final moments on the boards at State Farm Center were more than an acknowledgement of athletic achievement—they were a celebration of a season where these two young teams found unity, playing in front of their hometown crowd.

Junior Stella McMillan launches a shot during an early-morning workout. Players are rated on a point system from 1 – 4.5, with the team only allowed a combined fourteen points on the floor at any time. While Stella is rated at a 1.5, she is a capable scorer, as well as a ferocious defender, blocking out other team players on the floor. Head Coach Stephanie Wheeler (AHS ’04) quickly points out that Stella is the one who keeps the team’s mood from getting too serious. “She says things like, ‘I don’t need team shoes’…that’s just her sense of humor. She takes care of her teammates that way.”

After a long, hard workout, freshman Jonathan McNamara leads the charge as the men’s team pushes through sprints up and down the court. Conditioning and upper-body strength are key to generating the power to shoot from chair position.

Coach Wheeler leads a young squad with no seniors on the roster. Wheeler, a veteran of the team who played with several of her Illini teammates on two gold-medal-winning Paralympic teams twelve years ago, said of this generation, “They must be the most connected generation in one way, but the most isolated individually. We work to teach them the strength is the team. All of us are interconnected and reliant on each other.”

It might be practice, but the play is hard. Sophomore Thomas Duffy hits the floor during a contact play.

After practice, freshman Gabe DenBraber shows off a layer of tire rubber and callouses on his hand. Gabe says that eventually, the callouses break off from the wear, exposing raw skin. Wheelchair basketball is not for lightweights. Much like motorsports, wheelchair basketball involves rubber-on-rubber collisions and defensive maneuvers to literally box in an opponent. If you’re close enough, you can even smell burned rubber from the collisions under the boards.

Shooting from a lower vantage point without the benefit of generating power from the legs, each athlete adopts upper-body shooting mechanics based on differing range of motion to allow them to launch shots from a distance.

Assistant Coach Kaitlyn Eaton (AHS ’17), left, encourages the team during an early morning shoot-around practice. Eaton says that whatever disability people have, it doesn’t matter, adding, “We’re here to compete.”

As players work on trick shots after practice, sophomore Kyle Jankowski is able to get a shooting advantage by tilting his chair up on one wheel during the shot.

Team athletic trainer Connor Doherty gets a birthday greeting from Gabe outside the workout room at the Disability Resources & Educational Services facility. Connor said his office and facility become a hangout for both teams, adding, “Everyone’s always around, so everyone always looks out for each other.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams practice and work out in the same facilities. Alejandra Ibañez, better known as Ali, jokes with Gabe. Both players play a vital role for their teams, offering plenty of comic relief when things get tight.

During workouts at DRES, Thomas works on upper-body lifts. Thomas, who has an underlying condition called transverse myelitis, a virus that attacks the spinal cord, said the team trains hard every day with one purpose: to win.

Ali, left, and teammate Abby Farrell, right, run through light conditioning drills to keep tone but not overexert before their national tournament game.

In a spontaneous throw-down, Stella challenges Gabe to a push-up contest. Gabe, who was born with spina bifida, gets trainer Anna Radziewska to hold up his legs to give him a fighting chance against Stella’s powerful upper body strength.

Stella and Gabe celebrate a dubious victory for Gabe. Coach Wheeler said her takeaway from her basketball experience was not the championships, noting, “Lifelong friendships, that’s what I remember. Ninety-nine percent of the time those defining moments are, for most, not about national championships.”

Coach Matt Buchi (AHS ’08) heads down the bus ramp to the lower level of State Farm Center as players arrive for the last shoot-around practice before the tournament. Buchi, who has participated in national championships both as a player and a coach, said the opportunity to play at home transcends the team’s experience level. Buchi said, “Normally, for these events, we are tucked into a rec gym wherever we can get space. Playing at State Farm Center, we can make this experience as close as possible to our able-bodied counterparts.” Buchi added, “These athletes are too young to realize the gravity of this situation. We get to play at State Farm Center. That is amazing. It says we belong.”

In the quiet of the back prep area for players, Stella gets her hair in order. Stella said playing adaptive sports has allowed her to forget about her disability and just feel like an athlete.

Illini women’s basketball players gear up for battle, bringing spare wheels and repair equipment for their chairs, which will get punished with all the contact during the tournament.

On game day, teammates Miles Hill, left, and Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss, right, move to the groove as the pre-game music fills the State Farm Center. Noah was injured in 2009 when a driver fell asleep and stuck his family vehicle head-on. After rehab, Noah has competed in numerous adaptive sports, becoming the first Native American national champion in downhill mono-ski racing. Noah has worked toward Native American inclusivity work, including the Tribal Adaptive Organization, which live-streamed the tournament.

Officials check each competitor’s chair, making sure that it meets regulations. Chairs are limited to a floor-to-seat height of twenty-one inches. Chair frames can vary in width, depending on each player’s need for stability. Padding is used to minimize injuries during play and competitors are not allowed to use the lower front edge to tip over another player.

The Illinois Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team pauses for the national anthem during the opening of the 2019 College National Championships.

Before their first match, the Illinois Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team huddles up, yelling out, “Who are we?” The response is punctuated with, “F. I. B.”  F.I.B. stands for Fighting Illini Basketball. Back when Coach Buchi was a freshman player, teammates challenged the rookie to come up with a new cheer for the team. He proposed F.I.B., and the team has embraced it ever since.

Ben “Willy” Moronchuk, No. 35, battles up a shot as defenders surround him at the basket. While only a freshman, Willy is a veteran player, having competed with the Canadian men’s wheelchair basketball team, including an appearance at the 2016 Rio Paralympic games.

Gabe powers up a shot against intense defense. Gabe said there’s a misconception that wheelchair games are just a social event. He added, “We battle and bang just like everyone else.”

The Illini faithful, including Gabe’s dad, far left, cheer as the team comes out strong from the gate.

Ben “Willy” Moronchuk battles for the ball. The Willy nickname originates from when he first started playing. He played with long hair and a headband, which reminded teammates of Willie Nelson.

Coach Buchi fires up his team from courtside.

The Illinois Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team huddles up as they prepare for their first game. Coach Wheeler said the team is young, so it took them a long time to realize just how good they could be. “This team personality is goofy. They want to have fun…they want basketball to be fun. That was a challenge to me as a coach to adapt. I’m pretty serious—very serious—but I think we’re realizing their potential.”

Ali drives to the basket for a score.

Referee Steve Doudt tries to explain a call to Coach Wheeler. In the past, Doudt said he doesn’t worry about complaints, saying he appreciates being treated like any other referee. Doudt lost use of his legs when a car knocked into his motorcycle, pushing him into a guardrail in 1992.

Junior Emily Oberst battles for the ball. Coach Wheeler says that for most young female players, they grow up playing on co-ed teams where they are generally expected to defer to the bigger and stronger guys. “My challenge is to convince our student-athletes that they are the go-to person to score and take charge. Emily is the only one on our team who came from a program where she was the main scorer. The others are now learning they can be leaders and scorers as well.”

The men’s team gets some “inspiration” from Coach Buchi in the locker room. Reflecting later on the access to the men’s basketball locker room at State Farm, Buchi said, “It’s really fun to be able to talk to the guys and have our own private place. It makes us feel like we are a legitimate sport for the university.” DRES is currently in the design phase for a possible Center for Movement and Performance facility to be used by the wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track programs.

In a fast, sweeping drive to the basket, Miles flips the ball into the basket before flipping over, but garnering an ‘And One’ out of the play. Miles was able to quickly flip himself up upright after the tumble.

After a collision, Willy’s chair broke apart. Athletic trainer Connor Doherty, center, works feverishly during a timeout to try and fix the chair. In the end he used heavy tape and rolled it into a rope to bind the chair back together.

In an example of desire and defense making a player more than his rating, Miles, center left, locks up Jesus Villa for a jump ball.

Junior Collin LaFon’s dream was always to play wheelchair basketball. However, having cerebral palsy means he has less function than most players. Collin said, “I’ve always had to fight.” Collin goes by the nickname “Turtle,” a name given to him by the kids in junior high when he used to have to wear a helmet to protect against falls. Instead of shying away from the name, he’s embraced it as a term of endearment.

As the men’s season comes to a close, the crowd spontaneously sings “Hail to the Orange.”  Coach Buchi said of the team experience after being both a player and a coach, “The prestige of being at Illinois carries on, there is a legacy. These student athletes will do much more than play basketball and go to classes. I want them to have a path for their career and life.”

For the women, there was one more game to play. Ali drives to the basket as the women battle to win their third-place title game.

In the second half, the Illini women went to a full-court press to take advantage of their team speed. Junior Erica Wilson pressures the ball to slow down the opposition.

Former Illini player Janet Scanlon cheers with fans as the women’s team starts to build a lead.

In a perfect execution of defensive positioning, Erica forces the offensive player to run up the axle of her chair, taking her out of the play.

Coach Wheeler celebrates as the team defense locks in the win. “That was the best defense we’ve played all year; we held them to seventeen percent shooting. To do that at nationals, that was something.”

In the locker room, the players huddle with their trophy in the middle of the floor. Coach Wheeler gives them some final words of advice. Wheeler said of the team, “Playing to your potential in the right moment – that’s what that victory was about.”

Despite losing their final game and being a young team, the energy was positive. The men talked about the family they had built, plans to stay connected during the off-season, and a promise to push each other to keep working, recognizing that next year they will be stronger and more experienced. Coach Buchi said, “This team had the best team camaraderie. These guys fit well together.”

The player sentiments are backed up by someone who would know. Mike Frogley, the Hall of Fame wheelchair basketball coaching legend who led Illinois from 1997-2013 and coached Buchi himself, surprised the team with a visit and spoke to them in the men’s locker room after the last game. Frogley recognized their effort, telling them they were on the right path. He went around and shook each player’s hand, thanking them for their hard work.

The moment was not lost on Coach Buchi, who recognized the significance of what had just happened. A prior legend, Dr. Timothy Nugent, had made a similar locker room stop many years ago, doing the same thing for Coach Frogley back in the day. “That was special,” Buchi said.

After breaking the huddle, the women’s team was not done celebrating. Coach Wheeler laughed, and said, “I’ve won national championships and not celebrated that hard. These girls learned so much. It’s going to give us a lot of confidence and motivation to work hard for next year. I’ll remember the moment for a long time.”

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