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  • Writer's pictureBen Dickson

Captain Willy Leads Fighting Illini

Ben “Willy” Moronchuk describes himself as the stereotypical Canadian.

On the surface, this seems plausible enough. The Edmonton native loves watching hockey, especially his hometown Oilers. Moronchuk also makes sure you know that he prioritizes being with family and friends. A little more unusual, however, is that his parents just moved to the countryside to start a hobby farm, and Moronchuk now takes on the role of a “makeshift cowboy.”

A deeper dive shows that a lot more that goes into making the Illinois captain click. The nickname “Willy” comes from his days playing wheelchair club basketball in Edmonton. There were a lot of other people named Ben, and Moronchuk’s long hair and headband prompted comparisons to the famous musician Willie Nelson.

“I’ve had [the nickname] pretty much my whole wheelchair basketball career,” Moronchuk said. “And I think that’s how a lot of people just know me as.”

Since that moment, it stuck.

Finding the Sport

Moronchuk still doesn’t know exactly how he injured his foot. He played a lot of sports growing up and noticed he was starting to feel a lot of pain in his foot, leading him to get it checked out.

Ultimately, his right ankle was severely damaged. The injury wound up being a bone chip that ended up going into and severing a piece of his Achilles tendon, which started to die. Moronchuk’s doctors then performed a procedure in which they tried to stimulate the bone and fix the tendon.

Moronchuk recovered, but as a result of the injury, he could not run or jump with his right foot at all. Fortunately for him, he had the connection to legendary Canadian wheelchair basketball player Danielle Peers, who introduced him to the game in 2010.

“Finding wheelchair basketball was really kind of a cool thing,” Moronchuk said. “So we had a family friend who went to the Paralympics in 2008 in Beijing [and] won a bronze medal. She’s like, ‘Hey, you should come try this sport out because if you can’t play anything else, this is a really high-level sport, it’s really fun, and I think you’d enjoy it.’”

From there, Moronchuk fell in love with the sport. As a teenager, he could only imagine where it would take him. At 25 years old – he turns 26 in May – Moronchuk was fortunate to find the right people along his path.

Champaign Bound

Matt Buchi was grateful to get experience in coaching at a young age, both on the hardwood and the recruiting trail.

Like Moronchuk, the Illinois head coach was not born with a physical disability. At nine years old, Buchi was in a car accident, suffering a spinal cord injury and paraplegia.

Shortly after his injury, Buchi crossed paths with someone who was a year older than him. That person had already started a wheelchair track program and was starting up a new hoops team to go with it. He asked Buchi to join up and he was immediately hooked.

Buchi played basketball through middle school and high school, which eventually led him to play collegiately for Illinois. He knew he wanted to teach after his career, but he did not want to do so academically. Of course, that led him to coaching.

He coached under former Illinois and Canadian national team head coach Mike Frogley. As Frogley grew older, he had visions of starting a family and did not want to travel as frequently. This allowed Buchi to go around the world recruiting young athletes, and he was eventually hired as head coach in 2013.

“I got bit by the bug really good,” Buchi said.

A few years later when Moronchuk was with a Canadian developmental group, which Frogley coached, he came down to play in one of Illinois’ tournaments. Buchi knew little about Moronchuk at that point, but he was excited to get to know him as a player and a person.

In the first significant conversation between the two, it seemed like the gym went quiet.

“When I went to first talk to him, he was sitting at a bleacher watching another game, and I rolled up and talked to him,” Buchi recalled. “And all of his teammates, men and women’s side, were just watching like, ‘Oh! Coach is talking to Willy, this is going to be interesting.’”

The two men hit it off right away, and there were no doubts about Moronchuk wearing the orange and blue.

“I just fell in love with his work ethic in the way he pushes himself and stays with it the whole time,” Buchi said. “Incredible athlete in general, but the character level was always a big thing for me, and he just naturally was a leader for us.”

Buchi envisioned that role for Moronchuk right away, and Moronchuk does not remember having any doubts, either.

Buchi’s will to build “a really strong culture” stood out to Moronchuk, along with the fact that he valued chemistry alongside talent. With a bunch of older players leaving, the new culture could be built around Moronchuk and his class, which was exciting for the incoming freshman. Between that, the history of Illinois as a great wheelchair basketball school, and the strong Canadian pipeline with Frogley, Moronchuk had an easy choice to make.

After playing in the 2018 World Championships in Hamburg for Canada, Moronchuk arrived on campus for the 2018-19 school year.

(Photo by Craig Pessman)

A Natural Leader

With Buchi at the helm, Illinois has chosen its team captain in a variety of ways. One year, he had the team do anonymous surveys. In another, prospective captains gave presentations detailing pros and cons. Regardless of how the process unfolded, Moronchuk would always be penciled into a captain spot.

“‘It’s going to be Willy and X,’” Buchi said. “It’s Willy and whoever else was going to be supporting him.”

A multi-year captain, Moronchuk feels comfortable in his ability to have a voice. He knows that sometimes the player-coach relationships aren’t always perfect, and he realizes the honor of his peers choosing him to lead a group fighting for a common outcome.

Moronchuk doesn’t focus on the honor that comes with the title, instead taking pride in the faith that his teammates put in him. “It was that everyone has the support in me and they want me to be that voice and be somebody that they can trust to come to if they have any issues.”

Moronchuk refers to himself as more of a “kickstarter” than a leader, but his experience along the way has certainly warranted that title.

Part of that journey took place with the Canadian national team when Moronchuk made the 2016 Rio squad as a “surprise.” He played in more of a filler spot but performed well. He realized that he probably was not at that elite level yet, but the experience gave him “the hunger to realize [he] want[s] to get further in the sport.” Moronchuk played for Canada for three years total, and his experiences allowed him to do “exciting” things such as playing in Hamburg. Overall, the stint helped him with both his skills and leadership.

Moronchuk’s on the court success pairs seamlessly with his vocal influence. He claims he is at his strongest when handling the ball and making plays for his teammates. Moronchuk also provides a positive element on the defensive end, knowing he has to be active on help defense and his matchup.

He believes he has improved on attacking in transition this season. Moronchuk cited the Fighting Illini’s problems in the paint, and his bursting to the hoop can lead to more called fouls.

“His skill set that he brought from the very beginning and he’s continued to build on puts him in a position that he will be that playmaker,” Buchi said. “But he also has the natural ability to encourage and inspire and empower his teammates to do more.”

Buchi added that this year’s club shoots the ball incredibly from beyond the arc, allowing Moronchuk to drive and kick to open teammates. Buchi agrees with the sentiment that Moronchuk’s playmaking is his strength, noting how he makes plays happen that should not necessarily be there.

Moronchuk has proved himself to be an elite scorer when Illinois needs him to be, as well. Neither Moronchuk nor Buchi mentioned scoring as his main strength, but it was demonstrated in outings throughout his career. Moronchuk scored a team-leading 23 points in a much-needed win at Auburn on Jan. 21.

As Illinois moves into this March, there is no question of who will lead it. The No. 3-seed Fighting Illini will look to their captain as they strive for the national title.

“We talk about it like it’s climbing a mountain,” Moronchuk said. “You don’t want to summit just yet. We want to be getting right up there every March.”

The guitar-playing, movie-loving Moronchuk – Pulp Fiction is his all-time favorite film – closes his part of the conversation by talking about his family yet again. On the court or off, his leadership is something that always makes them proud.

“We talked about culture, it’s been a big thing,” Buchi said. “It’s finding character guys that come together that care about each other and support each other. Willy is just another one of those guys in the group that cares for the guy next to him and wants him to be successful just as much as he does.”

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