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Women's wheelchair basketball player Hailey Smith and men's player Martrell Stevens lean together for a photo of this weekend's schedule.
Women's wheelchair basketball player Hailey Smith and men's player Martrell Stevens pose together in front of this weekend's game schedule.

Illinois wheelchair basketball prepares to play for home crowd


For the first and only time this season, the Illinois men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams are facing the competition in their home court at this weekend’s Illinois College Tournament. 

A total of 22 games will be played at the Activities and Recreation Center (201 E. Peabody Dr., Champaign) from Friday, Feb. 9 to Saturday, Feb. 10, including eight individual contests for the Illini women’s and men’s teams. 

For Friday’s 5 p.m. women’s game against The University of Texas at Arlington and the men’s 7 p.m. contest against University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the teams want fans to fill the stands. 

“We want to get as many people in the gym as possible—we’ll have the band and the cheerleaders, we’re trying to make it a loud and fun environment for our student athletes to play in,” said Stephanie Wheeler, head coach of both Illinois wheelchair basketball teams.

Wheeler, head coach of the women's team since 2010, took over coaching duties for the men's team after former head coach Matt Buchi moved to a new role at Illinois. 

On Saturday, seniors will be recognized between the 3 p.m. men’s game against Mizzou and the 4:45 p.m. women’s game versus the University of Arizona. 

“We have veteran guys and ladies who have been in the game, and some who are brand new to college basketball,” said Matt Poland, the assistant coach for both teams. “It’s been fun having that blend, and not only helping the fifth- and sixth-year players finish out stellar careers, but help the next generation come into their own.” 

This season, the men’s and women’s teams are playing together more than ever, with coach Wheeler leading joint practices alongside full-time assistant coach Matt Poland and volunteer assistant coach Ranley Clayton, herself an alumna of the program. 

The two teams crossed over in practices before this season, often meeting for skill work, but now nearly everything is done together, with the 22 student-athletes mixing or facing off in most scrimmages and drills. 

It’s a unique spin for two uniquely structured teams, with sixth-year seniors Gabe DenBraber, Ryan Glatchak, Marlee Wagstaff and Ali Ibanez and seniors Shawn Sloan and Mary Wagstaff shouldering much of their teams’ game experience. This week’s focus: staying disciplined on defense, playing free on offense, Wheeler said. 

“Both teams are getting a lot out of training with each other,” she said. “It’s challenging both teams on physical and mental level—it’s been a really positive change and connects the two together.” 

Illini wheelchair basketball teams will face their final tests next month at the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament College Nationals. The women’s team will head to the University of Alabama (March 6-9); the men’s team will travel to Marshall, Minnesota the following week (March 13-16). 

“The message has been each game is a building block on how we want the rest of the season to be going up to the next tournament,” Poland said. “Every single team goes to the last tournament, we have an opportunity to every single game build off of it, and in Nationals is where we need to be our best self.” 

Before then, the women’s team will travel to Brookfield, Wisconsin, to play in the Big Cheese Classic (Feb. 16-17); the men’s team will play in the Arizona College Tournament, hosted in Tucson (March 1-2). 

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