Women’s wheelchair basketball opens season at ARC

In their first test for the upcoming season, the Fighting Illini men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams will hold their annual Illini Classic basketball tournament Saturday and Sunday. The tournament will feature two women’s teams and five men’s teams, including Illinois’ own defending national champion men’s and women’s squads.

“The tournament is a preparation process for the year,” women’s coach Stephanie Wheeler said. “It’s our first tournament and a measuring stick for how we’ve done in practice. It’s a big deal for our group.”

The players are happy to finally face some competition outside of practice.

“We’re all really excited for the upcoming tournament,” senior Dana Fink said. “We will be able to see where we are versus the other teams.”

The tournament features club teams from around the Midwest in the two-day event. It will be hard to top last year’s successful championship runs, but both the men’s and women’s teams look to build off their experiences from last season to reach their goals this year while passing on advice to the new members of the teams.

The women’s team in particular looks to the senior leadership of team captain Shelly Chaplin, as well as returning senior Fink.

“Our goal is the same as last year,” Chaplin said. “(We want) to win it all, this time to repeat as champions. I want to be able to lead this team as a captain and the tournament will allow us to play versus a real team, to see what I and the team can do. It’s different when you play your own team in practice and against an opponent.”

Fink also has embraced the challenge of leading the younger Illini.

“This year I have taken more of a leadership role,” Fink said. “We’ve got some new members on the team that I think will fit in nicely.”

The Illini women will play a doubleheader against the Chicago Sky, facing off early Saturday morning and then returning to action in the late afternoon. The Illini also faced the Chicago Sky in last year’s Illini Classic, winning all three games, 45–18, 37-21, 28–22.

“I think we match up well with the Sky,” Fink said. “We have been prepping for some time now, so we just have to come into game mode and stay consistent throughout.”

The Illini know it will take a lot of work to repeat as champions.

“We have expectations of excellence,” Wheeler said. “Obviously right now is the start and we are not where we want to be, but we’ll continue to work on improving. We’ve got to do that, improve in order to win the championship again.”

Fans can get free admission to all of the Illini Classic matchups, which will be played at the ARC Gym 1, with the Illinois women’s team taking on the Sky at 11:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Saturday.