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Mary Free Bed Wheelchair Basketball team takes home championship

Mary Free Bed’s Varsity Jr. Pacers wheelchair basketball team was crowned best in the Midwest Sunday as they cruised to a 33-17 victory past the Detroit Motor City team at the 2019 Mary Free Bed Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. (WWMT/Jake Berent)

Mary Free Bed’s Varsity Jr. Pacers wheelchair basketball team was crowned best in the Midwest Sunday as they cruised to a 33-17 victory past the Detroit Motor City team at the 2019 Mary Free Bed Wheelchair Basketball Tournament.

Eight teams competed from three different states in two divisions. The prep division was made up of players age 7-13 and the varsity division was made up of players age 14-18.

“It was packed. Our first games yesterday, both of our Free Bed teams were playing and we had standing room only here,” said Kyle Ringwald, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s sports coordinator.

The win was just as important as the chance to compete for dozens of disabled children from Southwest Michigan, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Indiana and Ohio.

“It means everything, just to be in an organized basketball league, they're not only able to compete but be socially active with their other friends,” Ringwald said.

The Mary Free Bed team was made up of kids from all over the area, including Grand Rapids Christian High School senior David Heynen and South Haven High School Junior Kaiden Cole.

“It makes you feel like kind of like you're not so-called different or something like that. Which makes really good because you have someone that is kinda going through the same thing you are, and being able to play a sport with them is a bonus,” Cole said. “Living in a small town, you don't really see a lot of people in wheelchairs, you can't really play any able-bodied sports, so it's really cool to be able to have the opportunity to play with people and have a ground level sport.”

“I feel like I fit in more, because we all share a common thing and love basketball,” Heynen said. “This helps me be more myself, because I don't fit around with anyone, since I don't know anyone else with disabilities. This helped me a lot, build my confidence and stuff. It's great.”

The rules are a little different in wheelchair basketball, but essentially the same as regular basketball, but the strategy involved is a little different.

“The rules of travelling are a little different, they have to dribble once between every two pushes, a lot of the fouls are the same,” Ringwald said.

“We have to make sure that we're talking, communication is a really big thing,” Cole said. “Learning what each other can do is a big part of it, and working really hard.”

“We play man-to-man, and we try to call a switch when there's a pick and stuff,” Henyen said. “We want a lot of chair contact, so we can stop their movement, and stop the play."

Coach Lee Montgomery played decades of competitive wheelchair basketball, and jumped at the opportunity to coach.

“Someone came and asked our adult team if anyone wanted to be a coach. I quickly raised my hand, and here I am, 31 years later,” Montgomery said. “I love giving back because I've been so successful in the sport myself. A lot of kids you see here today, you'll see on adult teams somewhere in the future.”

Both Heynen and Cole want to continue their careers while earning college degrees at Calvin College and the University of Illinois, respectively.

“I want to go to college for basketball so I can have something else to look forward to and be like everyone else,” Cole said.

“I plan on going to Calvin, but still playing for Mary Free Bed and their adult team and continue playing wheelchair basketball,” Heynen said.

The Mary Free Bed Varsity Jr. Pacers won the championship, while the Mary Free Bed Jr. Pacers prep division team lost their championship game 37-16 to the Turnstone team from Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

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