I had the honor to serve the Junior Division for six and a half years in three different positions. The reason I worked to so hard is to serve the amazing kids who make up the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Junior Division.
I have been given the opportunity to highlight some of these remarkable young athletes in the NWBA's Athlete Spotlight series presented by Toyota. The first junior athlete I will showcase is Evan Heller.
I became aware of Evan last season when he submitted his application for Timothy J. Nugent Academic All-American consideration. As part of his project (to view his project click here), he explained that his first exposure to wheelchair basketball came from his school based team. This is an unusual avenue to the sport from my experience, but I definitely hope that this becomes far more commonplace for generations of wheelchair basketball players in the future.
Evan’s first exposure to adaptive athletics came when he participated in sled hockey with the Ohio Blades when he lived in Columbus, Ohio. In 2014, Evan and his family moved to Wooster, Ohio where he was encouraged to try wheelchair basketball through his new school district that had started the very first interscholastic adaptive sports team in the state.
Evan was not sure what to make of wheelchair basketball. His perception of wheelchair basketball before he started playing was it could not be as enjoyable as its able-bodied counterpart, but after trying it his opinion quickly changed.
He told me as part of our phone interview, “People should just try it (wheelchair basketball) before making a judgement about it. The competition is great and I have had the opportunity to meet so many great people."
After trying wheelchair basketball for the first time in 2014, Evan joined the Wooster Generals in 2015. The last two seasons the Generals have been the undefeated Champions of Ohio with a record of 34-0. Evan states “My teammates and I have been able to show our school community that we are athletes, just like the football players or the soccer players or any other able-bodied athlete competing for our school.”
During competition with the Wooster Generals Evan learned about the Achievement Center's Junior Cavaliers, an NWBA Junior Division team made up of junior athletes that participate on different school teams in Ohio and others who currently do not have wheelchair basketball in their school districts.
Evan decided to join the Junior Cavs in his sophomore season. During Evan’s first season with the Cavs, they qualified for Nationals for the first time. The Cavs finished 8th in the National Invitational Tournament for a final ranking of 24th. The Cavs took that experience and continued to improve qualifying for the Varsity Championship for the first time ever and finishing 6th nationally. Evan was honored to be named to the All-Tournament Team at Nationals.
Evan is very excited to see if he can keep the state winning streak going with the Generals and to continue to work hard with his Cavs teammates to see if they can improve on their 6th place finish. “I am really excited for the upcoming season. The Jr. Cavs were probably one of the best kept secrets in the NWBA junior division last year, but this year we will probably have a target on us so we will have to be ready to play.”
Evan has many interests outside of basketball. He is a member of his school’s marching band and on the Wooster Generals track team. He is a three-time State Runner-Up and All-Ohio performer for wheelchair track and has made Wooster High school’s Wall of Fame thanks to his success on the track.
Evan also feels a responsibility to give back to other challenged athletes and to the sport of wheelchair basketball. He and others involved in interscholastic competition in Ohio lobbied state legislators in May to increase funding so more school districts could compete in wheelchair basketball. For the last two summers, Evan has been part of the ranger leadership program at Flying Horse Farms Summer Camp. Flying Horse Farms provides children with an opportunity to enjoy life and forget about their life threatening illnesses such as cancer. Evan plans to became a full-fledged counselor at Flying Horse Farms when he is old enough.
Evan also looks forward to his future where he plans to continue to play wheelchair basketball. He plans to play in the College Division next year, but has not made his final decision on where he will play yet. Evan’s advice to younger athletes who want to play in college is to focus on academics and always do their best. He told me that as he makes all his different college visits, one of the first questions that coaches ask is about his grade point average and how has he done on the ACT test.
I would like to thank Evan for taking the time to work on this with me and I look forward to spotlighting more Junior Division student-athletes in the future.
About the Author, Chris Rathje
Rathje started his adaptive athletics career in the third grade as a member of the Windy City Warriors in suburban Chicago. In 1993 Rathje was one of the original members of the prep team the Junior Wheelchair Bulls.
When it was time to play varsity competition Rathje went on to play for the RIC Spalding Bulldogs which was the precursor to the Chicago Skyhawks. Rathje played four years in the College Division at the University of Illinois.
In 2012, Rathje returned to the wheelchair basketball community to coach the Windy City Warriors alongside his college roommate, and current Auburn head coach, Robb Taylor.
From 2013-2019 Rathje volunteered for the Junior Division as educational liaison, vice president and president of the Junior Division. He looks forward to sharing stories that will hopefully open doors for student athletes with physical disabilities.