MARSHALL - The Southwest Minnesota State University wheelchair basketball team is going to nationals in Alabama next week.
SMSU is ranked seventh out of eight schools in the intercollegiate division, which is pretty good considering it's by far the smallest school of the eight.
"We recruit the same players, the difference is we recruit from 3,000 instead of 30,000 students," said coach Derek Klinkner, who last month replaced longtime coach Lew Shaver, the man responsible for getting the team started in 1969. "Our advantage is we're part of the athletic department."
Photo by Steve Browne
The Southwest Minnesota State University wheelchair basketball team held practice Friday afternoon to prepare for the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Alabama next week against giants such as the universities of Texas, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Shaver resigned during the season after 29 years on the sidelines, opening the door for Klinkner, a former all-conference linebacker for the Mustangs before being sidelined by a farm accident. He came on board as assistant coach last August.
Wheelchair basketball was invented by disabled veterans during World War II, and is governed by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The NWBA was founded in 1948 and is made up of 200 teams organized in 22 conferences and seven divisions.
According to Klinkner, SMSU plays in a collegiate division, which is the highest in the nation.
Wheelchair basketball is played with custom designed wheelchairs which have wheels cambered in an upside down 'V' shape.
They can turn on a dime, and they're fast. They're also expensive, costing 15 to 20 times more than a standard non-powered wheelchair. The players usually have their own.
"It needs to fit perfectly, they'll come and measure you for it, that's a major thing," said player Rick Kamm. "It also depends on which class you're in, one through four, depending on your disability."
A class one has a seat which is basically a bucket, providing the greatest stability. Disabilities range from players who can walk with difficulty to players paralyzed from the chest down.
"I'm a class four because I can walk," said player Trisha Kienitz. "I have an artificial leg. I was eating in the cafeteria and some of the guys noticed my leg and asked me if I wanted to try it out. It's a totally different experience and training to use it."
Kienitz, a junior, has been playing since her freshman year. Team captain Jake Tews estimates the average player has been playing about seven to nine years.
"This is only my fifth year playing, my first starting," Tews said. "We've got two kids who are playing their first year."
Klinkner acknowledged they're facing some stiff competition, but said he hopes to rise from seventh to at least fifth place in the nationals.
When they go to Alabama on Tuesday, Jeremy Darveau, offensive line coach of the SMSU football team, will be going with them.
"They've been at it for a long time," Darveau said. "It's a tradition here, they focus on being a great program. They've got some tough competition but coach Klinkner has done a great job of preparing them."
The Mustangs, who finished 13-13 this season, won three National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament championships in the 1980s - 1981, '83 and '86.