Wheelchair basketball teams struggle with small rosters

By Lucas Deal

The most dominating teams on campus might not be playing at Assembly Hall, but rather on the other side of Memorial Stadium.

The Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team has won the last three National Women’s Basketball Tournament Championships. Despite losing four starters from last year’s team, it still opened this season seeded No. 1.

The men’s team is seeded No. 3 in the collegiate division.

“We have a lot of young players this year, but they are perfectly designed to be optimistic,” said eighth-year head coach Mike Frogley.

Even though it is early in the season, both the men’s and women’s teams have lost several key players to injuries. The rosters are also depleted with several players from each squad participating in the 2004 Paralympics and sitting out the first semester.

If both teams can learn to play up to their potential and minimize their mistakes, then they might bring home another national title.

The Illinois wheelchair basketball program was created at the University of Illinois at Galesburg in 1940s. Originally called the “Gizz Kids,” the Galesburg program was a charter member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, founded in 1949. The program was later moved to Champaign, and in 1986 became the Fighting Illini men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams.

Wheelchair basketball is very similar to regular basketball from a rules perspective, with only one major difference: Players are separated into a three-class system depending on each player’s leg and torso muscle strength. A class-three player is the strongest and counts as three points. A class-one is the weakest and counts as one point. At no time in a game can a team have more than a total of 12 points on the court.

The Illinois men’s team is very diverse this year with four class threes, four class twos and two class ones. Because of injuries, the team is only playing with six or seven players.

After decent showings in their first two tournaments of the year at Texas-Arlington and Wisconsin-Whitewater, the Illinois men went 3-1 and tied for first place in the Wirtz Tournament, held on Saturday and Sunday in Chicago.

The women’s team also participated in the event, despite being one of only two women’s teams.

The men were led to the title by stellar play from sophomores Denny Muha on the perimeter and Drew Dokos in the post.

The women went 0-4 in the tourney, losing to two men’s teams and the RIC Express, a women’s team full of Illinois alums.

Before the tournament, Muha said this year’s team will need to be more cohesive as a unit to be successful. Muha said this is not the most talented team he’s ever been on, but solid teamwork could still lead to success.

Frogley said both team’s skill levels are not quite up to what he would like to see but was impressed by the poise and energy levels of the teams.

Assistant coach Rob Taylor agreed, saying that with such a small number of available players, each person must step up to be successful.

“It’s good for the players we have here,” Taylor said. “It helps players learn to play in the clutch.”

The women’s team is experiencing similar problems. Because of a lack of teams in the collegiate division, the Illinois women often compete against men’s teams.

Assistant coach and former Illinois star Christina Ripp knows this problem all too well.

As a starter on the Illinois women’s last three national-championship teams, Ripp and her teammates competed against several men’s teams during the regular season. Competing against the men made them stronger when it came time to play in the women’s national finals.

“By playing up a level, it’s intensity that you can’t duplicate,” Ripp said.

Ripp added that it allowed her and her teammates to practice against the best in the world, and, in turn, make themselves better.

Junior Sarah Castle – who is sitting out this semester after placing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympics – is among several players itching to get back out on the court.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen the whole potential of our team yet,” she said. “Ours may not be that great yet, but this sport is so team-oriented.”

With only two more weeks until the end of the semester and the addition of some more players to both rosters, Taylor said he knows that nothing is out of reach.

“Often teams think that we’re a pushover,” he said. “But I think once we get everyone back second semester and healthy, we’re going to be a dangerous team and win the championship.”