Men’s wheelchair team wins championship

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Josh Birnbaum

For the first time since 2001, the Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team won the national championship during a tournament at Oklahoma State University.

“People don’t think wheelchair basketball is anything special, but we worked our asses off,” rookie Joey Gugliotta said. “We’re the best team in the country.”

The Illini were the No. 1 seed going into the tournament, but they were still considered the underdog to the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks, who have won the championship four of the past five years.


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Wheelchair team wins championship

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“Other teams don’t feel like they have a chance against Whitewater, whereas we are above that,” freshman Tom Smurr said. “We have confidence. We don’t feel like underdogs. We feel like we’re the more powerful team.”

Indeed, the Illini outshot and outrebounded the Warhawks to win 63-58. Team captain and Tournament MVP Steve Serio contributed 16 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds to the victory but says it was a total team effort that allowed them to overcome the former champions.

“Every single person did something to win this championship,” Serio said. “If it wasn’t people scoring, it was people getting some big defensive stops and that’s exactly what we needed.”

Gugliotta and fellow freshman Brian Bell made a large contribution to the win as well. Both players scored 12 points and added five or more rebounds.

“I’ve never ever, ever seen him play like that,” Smurr said of Gugliotta. “Honest to God, he looked like someone else on the court. It was like, ‘Who is that guy?'”

The championship win is particularly special to the men because it comes only weeks after the women’s wheelchair basketball team won its respective national championship. This is the third time in history, and the first time since 1990, that both teams have claimed titles in the same year.

“It feels good to win with the women’s team,” Serio said. “They help us so much at practice just like we help them, so this is as much our national championship as it is theirs.”

Many of the older players also attribute some of the team’s success to the new recruits.

“The core of our team is so young.” Serio said. “That freshman class is going to be together for the next four years. They’re just going to get better … this is how dynasties are created.”

And the entire team credits head coach Mike Frogley for being a good leader throughout the season.

“He knows when to yell and when to praise,” Brandon Wagner said. “He always seems to know the right call, in practice or in a game.”

The players will be off for a week before they begin practicing again. Some will train for their respective national teams while others will train for the Paralympic tryouts this summer.

“The cool thing is that it’s not over,” Serio said. “We’re going to work hard this summer, and we’re going to come back and win another (championship).”

The next big event for the team will be the Ultimate Basketball Championship on April 16 in Huff Hall.

Members of the able-bodied Illinois varsity basketball teams will be strapped down in wheelchairs and play against the men’s and women’s wheelchair teams.

“People will get an opportunity to see a bunch of different individuals with a bunch of different skills and abilities,” Frogley said. “They will see them for those skills and abilities and look past the differences.”