Men’s wheelchair basketball looks to continue excellence with Illini Classic

Most collegiate athletic programs start off their seasons with easy games to build up confidence and experience. However, the Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team is taking a different approach.

In this weekend’s annual season-opening Illini Classic, the Illini will take on some of the best club talent from the region.

“(The Illini Classic) will be pretty tough competition,” said head coach Mike Frogley. “We always start out with our Illini Classic at the beginning of the year, and we invite the top club teams from the Midwest to come and play here.”

Among the competition the team will face this weekend are the No. 20 RHI Pacers, the No. 12 Rockford Chariots, the No. 11 Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks, and the No. 5 Chicago Wheelchair Bulls. Despite facing some stiff competition, the Illini come in confident, boasting a talented roster that includes three players who participated in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and six more who took part in the Junior World Championships.

“People coming out to get a chance to see wheelchair basketball this weekend will get a chance to see literally some of the very best athletes in the world,” said Frogley.

Admission to the Illini Classic is free, and it will be held in Gym 1 of the Activities and Recreations Center. The Illini begin action on Saturday at 8 a.m. with a contest against the RHI Pacers, as well as afternoon matchups against the Bucks and Bulls. The Illini will wrap up on Sunday against the Rockford Chariots at 9:45 a.m.

One new element to this year’s Classic will be the presence of the campus’ student athletic support group, Illini Pride. This will be the first year that the organization will officially organize to participate in cheering on the men’s wheelchair basketball team, with the newly formed Roll Squad encouraging fans to “Roll Out!” in support of the team. The Roll Squad will also be handing out free Panera and t-shirts to entice more supporters.

“We’ve been marketing,” said Brett Calvert, junior in ACES and co-leader of the Roll Squad. “We made fliers and handed out some after the football game on Saturday, and we’re going to hand out more fliers on Friday at the volleyball game.”

“I think the big thing is to get people to come once. And once they come once, they’re hooked,” added Eric Hoffman, sophomore in Business and co-leader of the Roll Squad.

The expected impact of the new cheering section is not lost on Frogley.

“I think that (the Roll Squad being there) is going to make the games that much more fun,” said Frogley.

“One of the neatest things I love about U of I is the expectation of excellence. We want that in every single thing … and when the Pride come out it’s sort of that acknowledgment that we’ve got great varsity student-athletes in this program too, and we’re coming out to support them.

This year’s Classic will kick off another season of high hopes for a wheelchair basketball program that has a history of excellence.

The Illini men’s team has yet to miss a National Wheelchair Basketball Association postseason since the tournament’s creation in 1977. The University of Illinois is also one of only five schools to have won a NWBA national championship, boasting seven in total.

“We set goals every year, and one of those goals is always to win a national championship,” said Frogley.

“You think about other programs, on the men’s side for example: Their goal is to make the Sweet 16 or their goal is to make the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to win a national championship.”