Tiger Wheelchair Basketball achieves first winning record

The team said goodbye to its first graduating class of players.
Freshman Connor Downes talks with his mother, Peggy Downes, at the Tiger Wheelchair Basketball Annual Awards Luncheon on Sunday at the Reynolds Alumni Center. Graduating players, who made up the original team in 2005-2006, were given framed jerseys.

The Tiger Wheelchair Basketball team commemorated its fifth season and its first graduating class at noon April 18 at the Reynolds Alumni Center.

"In wheelchair basketball you get five years of eligibility instead of four, and we just finished our fifth season, so it's a very exciting day for us here," coach Ron Lykins said.

After a brief welcome and lunch, awards were presented and individual accomplishments were honored.

The team has come a long way from the five-man team in 2005, when it finished last in the Central Intercollegiate Division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, Lykins said. It now has 11 players and finished the season with a winning record of 23-17.

"It's the first time we ever had a winning record," Lykins said. "We are now a competitive team that is getting better and will continue to get better."

None of the players sustained major injuries this season. This was a blessing, Lykins said.

"If you think of it, their hips are their shoulders and the knee is the elbow and so on, so they've got to take care of those joints," Lykins said. "If these guys get hurt bad, that really affects their mobility throughout the day, not only playing but just getting around in life. So we've really got to make sure we take care of that."

John Knaus, a graduating member of the inaugural team, said this season was his best yet.

"We improved this season I think a lot more than any other season before," Knaus said. "I actually wasn't going to play this season, and I am really glad I did because I learned more this season than I had in the previous four."

John Gilbert, also a graduating member of the inaugural team, has not only competed with the Tigers but has also on several national teams.

He competed in Sydney for the Youth Olympics, Rio de Janeiro for the Parapan American Games; Manchester, England, twice for the World Cup; and Paris for the under-23 U.S. team. Knaus won gold medals every time except for once in Manchester, where his team took silver.

For Gilbert, the hardest part will be saying goodbye to playing competitive wheelchair basketball, a sport he took up at age 10.

"My biggest challenge is just I guess getting over the fact that it's my last year," Gilbert said. "It still hasn't really sunk in yet."

Gilbert plans to help coach the team in the future and possibly start a team in Columbia.

Although he is not leaving the area, seeing his teammates less often will be difficult, Gilbert said.

"I'll miss them, just seeing them every day," Gilbert said. "I'm so used to that, and then just kind of taking that away will be an adjustment."

Lykins said the remaining team members are anxious to start working for next season.

"We are just starting to scratch the potential of this program, and seeing guys buy into that and get excited about that and anxious to get working for next year -- it's just a really cool thing to see," Lykins said.

Gilbert said though he will greatly miss playing on the team, he is comfortable it will continue to do well.

"It's a great feeling knowing that I'm graduating and the team is still in very good hands," Gilbert said. "We've started something very good here and hopefully it will continue for many, many years."

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