In a landmark moment for Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program, the wheelchair basketball team made its competitive debut last weekend in Pennsylvania at the annual Edinboro University Shootout.
Arriving in Edinboro, Penn. with barely a month of practice and only a single exhibition match under their belts, the newly-formed team faced a daunting slew of more experienced squads. Moreover, a small team to begin with, only six of the Wolverines’ 11 players could make the trip, leaving them with only one substitute for the entire weekend.
But if you didn’t know the cards were stacked against Michigan, based on its performances, you never would have found out.
In its first game, the team was pitted against the tournament hosts themselves. Not only is Edinboro a storied wheelchair basketball program, it’s also the alma mater of Alex Saleh, one of the Wolverines’ most important and experienced players. Per NWBA rules, although Saleh recently graduated from Michigan with a social work degree, he remains eligible to represent the Wolverines in competition for the first three years of the team’s existence.
“I’m trying to not get too much in my head about it,” Saleh said before the tournament. “This game isn’t about me. It’s an important first step for our team to plant our feet in the ground and let everyone know that we’re serious about creating a program here, that we’re going to play every single game with our heart out.”
And if anyone doubted Michigan’s intent to establish itself as a serious wheelchair basketball program, their reservations were quickly dispelled when the Wolverines cruised to a dominant 69-24 victory over Edinboro.
The adrenaline still flowing, Michigan was then immediately whisked over to its next game on Saturday against the Rochester Wheels. Picking up where they left off, the rampant Wolverines dismantled their opponents, winning 80-31.
After its first two games, Michigan had won by a combined margin of victory of 94 points — an impressive stat for any team, let alone a team that had only come together a month ago.
The third game of the day saw the Wolverines come back down to earth, however. The team quickly found itself trailing the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers by 14 points. Michigan had its first true litmus test — could it find a way to cope in games where the typically easy shots just weren’t falling?
Shrugging off the slow start, the Wolverines began to show signs of life. After a grueling and physical game, Pittsburgh would go on to barely eke out the win, 51-49.
Though disappointed to come away with a first loss, the Wolverines saw this as an inevitable and necessary lesson.
“Although we lost, we kept it close almost the entire time,” Saleh said. “We were pushing right alongside them — it was almost like a rivalry game. We brought the intensity and we didn’t give in for a single moment during that entire game.”
Added Michigan co-head coach Jessica Wynne: “They had two shooters that went really hot. We should’ve jumped them earlier to force them to play. But shooters shoot, and you can hypothesize about what would’ve happened if they had missed those shots, but I’d rather look at it with the mindset of what could we ourselves, including me, have done to change the outcome of this game? You have to live and learn from those mistakes.”
In their fourth and final game of the day, Michigan did just that, easily handling Philadelphia Magee’s division three team in a comprehensive 51-28 victory.
The final game of the weekend came the following morning as the Wolverines faced Philadelphia Magee’s division two squad. These opponents were the most highly ranked team Michigan would encounter in the tournament, and it showed. Already fatigued from playing four games in a single day with a relatively small squad, the Wolverines limped to a 66-35 loss.
But in finishing the weekend with three wins and two losses, Michigan had nothing to hang its head about.
“With the little amount of practice that we had prior to the tournament I was worried that the games were going to be closer, if not losses,” Saleh said. “But I trusted the team to stick in it, to keep the intensity up, and that’s what we did.”
Despite never having played together in organized competition, there was a palpable camaraderie amongst the Michigan group throughout the weekend. For Wynne, this sense of togetherness has been brewing since the day the team came together.
“I think we all understood how big this moment was,” Wynne said. “We talked about it as a team — this is history. Your kids are going to know about this, your grandkids are going to know about this.”
Prior to this weekend, Stark had never played in an organized wheelchair basketball tournament. So for her, the knowledge that her teammates had her back was a vital steadying influence throughout the weekend.
“In the beginning, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on until we got going a little bit,” Stark said. “But by the last game, even though we lost, I felt like I was really hitting my groove because I was gelling with my teammates, and that helped me put all my effort in.”
That effort didn’t go unnoticed.
“There were situations when teams would single her out and pick her out of the play, but at no point would she just throw her hands up off the wheels and not try,” Wynne said. “She’s always in it, digging, digging, and digging. I see that, I acknowledge it, and I know that’s the heart of a real champion to be able to do that. Learning the game will be secondary for her. Once she does that, she’ll be unstoppable.”
And the praise didn’t end there, for Stark or for anyone else. Each member of the team was brimming with pride at what their teammates had accomplished over the weekend.
“Everyone on the team has been waiting for this opportunity,” Wynne said. “For years, even lifetimes, they’ve wanted to be here. Because everyone has that in them, that patient drive to keep pushing forward, I think there’s something brewing with this team. Mentally, they’re tough, there’s zero ego on the bench. To have that from day one, we can do some excellent things.”