Wheelchair Basketball Gives Everyone Game

YOUNGSTOWN – Tony Sertick smiles at thoughts of wheels squeaking, leather balls bouncing and physical exertion at the Youngstown YMCA Central Branch basketball court.

He played wheelchair basketball there for two decades.

Now, the Youngstown Municipal Court magistrate is a volunteer coach for Austintown’s team for those in first through 12th grade.

This team is in its fourth year and plays against schools from the northeastern part of the state, supported by Adaptive Sports Ohio. Lisa Followay, CEO, says it costs $30,000 to equip each school with the wheelchairs. The nonprofit provides the equipment, while the schools field the teams

“This is a great program for kids who would not otherwise be able to participate in sports,” Sertick says.

Sertick, a 1984 Austintown Fitch High School graduate, has had spina bifida since birth but never let it deter him. His wheelchair team took on a team of nondisabled Fitch boys and girls basketball players in an exhibition game March 8. The wheelchair team won 52-8, as its players demonstrated how to properly play the wheelchair sport.

Sertick says those nondisabled boys and girls were humbled as they maneuvered in the modified wheelchairs, trying to push, dribble and shoot out of a sitting position.

Rules for the game state a player can push the chair one or two times while the ball remains in their lap, but then must dribble thereafter to avoid a travelling violation. The chair is considered part of the player, so any unnecessary contact would constitute a foul.

The nuances were not easy to grasp. After the game, Austintown Fitch senior Nate Leskovac – who participates in football, basketball and track and field for the Falcons –  showed emerging callouses on his hands from steering the wheelchair.

Austintown’s wheelchair team players had some crisp, clean passes – normally finding the wide-open players.

The ambulatory Fitch players struggled to shoot and pass the ball from a seated position, normally coming short of the basket or passing the inflated sphere out of bounds.

Leskovac called his opposition “warriors,” saying he encourages people at Fitch to support this team.

“Oh it was tough, a lot harder than we expected,” he says. “We expected to go in there and have a chance to win and you see how that turned out.”

Jody Myers, also an Austintown wheelchair coach, watched his 11-year-old son, Gabe, circle the floor numerous times, laughing and interacting before the March 8 contest. Gabe has cerebral palsy, which impacts his balance and posture, but it does not impede him from participating in games.

The Austintown team has five disabled and two ambulatory members, but is always looking for additions.

Myers says there can be at least three ambulatory team members, but only two can be out on the floor at one time and their scoring is capped at six points each. Each physically disabled player can score unlimited points.

Myers, who is involved with pep rallies and fundraisers for the team, says there are plenty of disabled children in Austintown who do not know about the program. He hopes to inform their parents how to get involved.

“It’s a different sport to play,” Myers says. “Getting in that chair and moving around is a lot of fun.”

Austintown Fitch coach Brian Beany, left, and Tony Sertick, Austintown wheelchair coach, watch the action March 8 at Austintown High School.

Adaptive Sports Ohio offers wheelchair basketball and track and field for those in seventh through 12th grade as interscholastic sports.

Power wheelchair soccer, sled hockey, wheelchair softball and tennis and other community-based sports are available to physically disabled people of all ages.

The organization is funded through a $250,000 annual grant from the Ohio Department of Education, along with donations and fundraisers, Followay says.

The ASO sled hockey team has played exhibition games against the Youngstown Phantoms at Covelli Centre the past few seasons, raising more than $4,000 each year.

ASO sponsors six interscholastic wheelchair basketball teams from Mahoning, Stark, Summit and Wayne counties, but only the teams in Austintown, Massillon and GlenOak opted to play this season.

Followay says the nonprofit is adding Lebanon High School, 30 minutes northeast of Cincinnati, next year. A few more schools are pending.

“Our goal is to double next year,” she says. “We hope to have 12 participating and then be at 20 by the end of 2023.”

Franklin Nicola and Conner Palacios, sons of Joanne Cummings, play on the Austintown wheelchair team.

Nicola, a freshman at Austintown Fitch High School, has Erb’s palsy and has 25% movement in his right arm.

That seems an afterthought for Cummings once her sons start wheeling around the court and she starts shooting video of them on her phone.

“It makes me want to get in there if I had that energy,” she says.

Nicola has tried out for the nondisabled basketball teams at Fitch, but finally found a home with the wheelchair team.

“That means a lot to him,”  says his grandmother, Vicki Hines.

The wheelchair team and the combined team from Austintown Fitch High School boys and girls basketball players are recognized after the March 8 game. 

In the years before the pandemic, the Austintown wheelchair team played Fitch teachers and administrators during halftime of a varsity basketball game. With COVID-19 restrictions limiting attendance to parents, Fitch Athletics Director Jim Penk says he scheduled the March 8 game to give the school’s wheelchair team some exposure and another contest.

An announcer introduced the teams and called out those who scored during the game. Penk says he wanted the experience to mirror a varsity basketball game as much as possible.

The Austintown wheelchair team is a club sport, which means the coaches are volunteers and are not paid a stipend.

Nevertheless, Penk views these student-athletes like he would anyone on the football, basketball or other varsity sports the Falcons support.

“We recognize it like the rest of our teams,” he says.

Fitch freshman Jackson Detchon is one of the team’s two nondisabled wheelchair players. He says playing is not about rolling around and shooting shots. It takes plenty of arm strength.

“I would imagine a quarterback throwing 80 yards,” he says.

Fitch freshman Kyle Miller says he builds up arm strength by pulling around other members of the team as he holds on to the back of their wheelchairs. Team members also throw around an 8-pound ball at practices and lap around the gym as fast as possible.

Miller has a bleeding disorder, rheumatoid arthritis in his knees and has “no clue what’s going on in my shoulder.” But his physical issues are a nonfactor once he is playing wheelchair basketball.

He felt the support from his nondisabled classmates at the game, knowing they supported his team like any other in Austintown.

“Austintown Falcons are amazing in every way,” Miller says.

Pictured at top: Austintown wheelchair team’s Kyle Miller, right, keeps the ball away from Austintown Fitch High School girls basketball player Zayda Creque.