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Local wheelchair athletes have no limits

By Jeffery Armstrong

Picture this: twelve athletes are on a gymnasium floor. Six are playing defense and six are trying to put the ball in the net. Arms are flailing and the players are yelling as they bump into each other on the floor.

Sounds like a basketball game with an extra player apiece, right? Wrong. It's a typical wheelchair soccer game. These games are played in gyms with tall soccer posts with nets on each end of the floor, somewhat similar to an outdoor soccer field.

The Clayton Eagles is a local wheelchair soccer team adopted by the Georgia High School Association. The Eagles are part of the Georgia League of the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, otherwise known as AAASP.

The AAASP is a nonprofit organization that established interscholastic sports leagues for students with physical disabilities or visual impairments so they can enjoy the same activities that are available to "able-bodied" student-athletes.

The Eagles have done very well this year in soccer ? 6-0. They will be traveling to Augusta this Saturday at 11 a.m. for the state wheelchair championship tournament. Should they win, it would be their first state championship in a few years. The Eagles have won three soccer titles and four basketball titles.

"I really believe we're going to win the state title this year," said Eagles head coach Patricia Hill. "These kids are really good and they work well together."

The Eagles represent the Clayton, Henry, Fayette and even Covington areas. Practices are held at the Riverdale Middle School gym and they are pretty spirited, sometimes even a bit rowdy, especially when you put together kids of all ages together in one gym.

Athletes from ages 6 to 21 can participate on the wheelchair soccer team and there is no gender separation. The teams are almost always co-ed and players can use either electric or manual wheelchairs.

Hill, 42, has been head coach since 1995 and has definitely put the time and effort to lead her team to a winning record. A former dance major at Tuskegee University, she transferred to Georgia Southern after taking part in a school project that put her in a room full of disadvantaged youths. This, she said, changed her life.

She has Rheumatic Fever as a child and had aches and pains as a youth. Ever since seeing those kids at Tuskegee, she's dedicated herself to making sure physically immobile kids are able to do whatever able-bodied kids can do. She's a big believer in AAASP's motto "Off the Sidelines n Into the Game."

"This sport, along with Wheelchair Basketball, Power Hockey and others, offer these children an after-school program that allows them to be competitive," she said. "It's great."

The best part of the job is seeing these immobile youth do well and win games.

"I try to get the players to really work as a team," said Hill, who's a consultative teacher at Riverdale Middle. "They have to work to each others' physical disabilities as well to become a complete unit."

In wheelchair soccer, Hill said some players may be more physically challenged than others. She said it's important that each player knows the strengths and weaknesses of each of his or her teammates in order to win games.

"What's also noteworthy is that every team has new faces almost every year and that presents another set of challenges," said Mary Olivencia, whose daughter Natasha is on the Eagles. "The veteran players have to get used to the new guys each year and that's not easy."

"That's so true; I think some of the players wanted to kick my son off the team since he started so slowly," laughed Diane Evans, mother of Eagles goalie Josh Evans, who's in his first year with the team.

Starr's Mill High senior Adam Bashakes disagreed with Evans. He said the team loves Josh and they all get along with each other. Bashakes, the defensive specialist, enjoys playing wheelchair soccer and has learned so much from the game.

"Playing wheelchair soccer gives you the opportunity to play people from across the state and country and you learn how to conduct yourself, win or lose," said Bashakes, 18. "If you lose, you practice good sportsmanship and figure out how to bounce back. If you win, you learn to celebrate well."

For his part, Union Grove High student Josh Evans, 16, likes playing the game, even though he's not a big sports fan.

"This is an interesting game and my teammates are pretty cool," said Evans.

Natasha Olivencia, 17, is one of two girls on the Eagles. The Mt. Zion High junior is a fan of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and admits to being a competitive person, so this game is perfect for her.

"I'm getting the chance to compete and be part of a team," she said. "I love competition and in this game I'm learning to be more of a team player."

Olivencia said the game has also helped her confidence level. She said since playing wheelchair soccer, she feels she can do anything once she puts her mind to it.

Three of Olivencia's schoolmates at Mt. Zion n Keair Bussell, Ryan Priouleau and Brandon Williams n are also members of the Eagles. Bussell, 18, said playing wheelchair soccer has helped his aggressiveness and his confidence; Priouleau, 17, uses the game to train for wheelchair basketball and Williams, 17, likes the fact that he has something to do.

"This is really amazing to see kids with disabilities coming out and playing," Williams said. "It's cool to be able to do the same things that able-bodied kids can do."

Sharian Greene, mother of Eagles player and Mt. Zion student Clavon Greene, said her son's behavior, grades and attitude have changed since he began playing years ago.

"He used to be a little timid, but not anymore," Sharian said.

"I like meeting new people and learning good sportsmanship," said Clavon, 17.

Once Saturday's state tournament is over, the Eagles will set their sights on attending the 2004 Coast to Coast Indoor Wheelchair Soccer Junior Nationals in San Diego, Calif. on Jan. 16-18. The Eagles won the 2003 Junior Nationals back in February and would love to defend its title. In order to make the trip, $600 per person must be raised for 10 players, three coaches and two parent chaperones. Hill asked that anyone wishing to donate to make checks payable to The Clayton Eagles, AAASP and mail them to P.O. Box 538, Pine Lake, Ga. 30072. All donations are tax-deductible.