• Ben Rappaport

CBT's 2021 Early Season Women’s Wheelchair Rankings

 

Women’s college wheelchair basketball is a small division with just six teams: Alabama, Arizona, The City University of New York (CUNY), Illinois, University of Texas-Arlington and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.


But don’t let the small number of teams or big names fool you, the competition is fierce and each of the teams should be competitive in the division. The teams know each other well because most of the season is spent playing one another.


This season, however, presents some new challenges. With a new team, rookie coaches and talented recruits coming to each squad, it’s shaping up to be a competitive year. Not to mention, most teams didn’t get to play real games between the lines last year, due to COVID-19. The pandemic forced seasons of intrasquad scrimmages, or practicing at home.


Getting back to the grind of daily training and practices has been a struggle ahead of intercollegiate games this season. But teams have persevered, fueled by the rush of competition.

 

Here are CBT’s early season rankings with notes on what to expect from each team this coming season:

 

1. Alabama


The reigning champs are poised to defend their title this year with a mix of speed and offensive dominance.


The Crimson Tide are one of just a few teams that have had the chance to hit the court already in 2021. So far they are 3-1, but each of those games were against club teams. In each of these early performances the team displayed the offensive prowess that Head Coach Ryan Hynes expects to define their season.


“We’ve been focusing on a growth mindset,” he said. “Our team doesn’t work through one player. Everybody brings it everyday.”


Hynes said the team only got better since their 2019 championship performance. They have seven new players, including Team USA Paralympic standout Lindsey Zurbrugg, who transferred from UW-W after the spring semester.


“Having her here every day in practice has been great for me just to see she just brings great energy every single day,” Hynes said.


Zurbs brings tenacity and bench energy to an already loaded roster that features other paralympians: Bailey Moody, Abby Bauleke, Joy Haizelden and Mary Silberman.


All that talent really shines in the shooting game for the Tide. While they aren’t as big as they have been in seasons past, they have a lot of speed to get the ball to the edges and hit a high volume of shots from anywhere on the floor.


With so much depth and skill, it’s hard to find a weakness on the Crimson Tide. Hynes said the team hopes to use those extra players on the bench to feed the team on the court through their energy.


“We have a bigger bench than we've had in years past. From an energy standpoint, I really like what I'm seeing from them,” Hynes said. “We want to be the loudest bench in the country this year.”


The Crimson Tide begin their quest to repeat at Arlington on November 11th.

 

2. University of Illinois


U of I is set to be one of the main competitors with Alabama this season. It may take some time to shake off the rust from the season that wasn't due to COVID-19, but they have depth and skill players to make the Illini a force to be reckoned with.


The game for Illinois revolves around Kady Dandeneau, the grad student and Team Canada Paralympian is an all-around star with the ability. She was College Player of the Year in 2019, and, according to her coaches, she has only improved since then.


“She is far and away our best player,” Head Coach Stephanie Wheeler said. “She'll be the one who teams look to try to take away.”


Dandeneau has the ability to play the post down low or drain three-pointers all game long.

But because the game plan for their opponents focuses so much on stopping Dandeneau, other players may find a chance to have breakout seasons. Ali Ibanez is one of those players. She found her groove as a mid-range player right before COVID shut down the 2020 season. And as a Team USA Paralympian she only got better. Playing alongside other dominant players improved her own game, so with a stellar roster around her, look for Ibanez to shine this season.


The other player likely to break out for the Illini is Ranley Clayton. She is a new piece to the team, but she already has a wealth of wheelchair basketball experience under her belt. Clayton is a graduate transfer from Auburn, where she was playing on the men’s team. Clayton was a star, even on the men’s team, so her time as a grad student promises big results.


“[Ranley] brings such a calming presence,” Wheeler said. “She’s a great outside shooter who really wants to get her teammates involved in everything and she just brings this really cool dynamic of calm confidence.”


Clayton has also brought a wave of leadership and chemistry to the team. Wheeler said she is constantly trying to foster connections between her teammates and despite being the newcomer, she is often the one others turn to for advice on their game.


The team will open their season in the Second City Classic Tournament in Chicago on November 13th, where they will mostly play club teams from the surrounding area.


Illinois is certainly a team to put on the radar this year as national championship contenders. With well-rounded talent, experience and a fundamentally sound brand of ball, the Illini are going to, as Wheeler puts it, “full send this season.”

 

3. University of Texas-Arlington


As the 2019 runner-up and one of the only teams who got on the court in 2020, UT-A is setting out with something to prove this year.


The team undoubtedly has experience on the court. They bring back all of their players from the 2020 season along with two new recruits. The Mavericks have already begun preseason play against local club teams and Head Coach Jason Nelms has been proud of what he has seen from the team thus far.


“The team is really hungry, it's looking really good, we have a lot of different pieces that mold together very, very well,” he said.


With so much experience on the court it is hard to pick out any one central contributor on UT-A. Just the same, Jayna Doll looks particularly primed to have a big season. She is probably playing her best basketball right now. Doll is a player with tremendous vision on the court and she really opens up the offense for her team with her passing ability. She also has a super high basketball IQ that helps her pick up on aspects of the game that her teammates often miss, like reading defenses properly or finding the open player in the low post.


But the team can’t rely entirely on Doll’s intelligence on the court. Nelms said the team has struggled with shot selection early on because all five players could score at any time.

“You got to really give them a direction on where you want the ball to go,” he said. “We don't have to attack with the same person every single game, so if a mismatch opportunity presents itself in certain spots of the court, then we can take advantage.”


While UT-A doesn’t have as much built-in adversity as some of the other teams in the division who are starting from the ground up, Nelms said he believes his team is better when they have to fight for it. He said the motto for the team this season is “adversity builds character,” meaning the team needs to go out and value each game. This is especially true because they realized how quickly it could all be taken away last year due to COVID-19.


“Right now, it’s like we are waiting for Christmas,” Nelms said. “What we're really looking for is just that joy and just keeping it on the basketball side every single day.”


The Mavericks will kick off the season with the Jim Hayes Memorial Tournament in Arlington on November 11, which will feature Alabama and Arizona.

 

4. (tie) University of Wisconsin-Whitewater


UW-W is in a bit of a rebuild this season. With the loss of Zurbrugg and another big point scorer, Josie DeHart, it’s going to be tough sledding these first few matchups.

“It’s a clean slate, which is a little strange for me,” Head Coach Christina Schwab said. “It’s definitely like starting from scratch with my squad.”


As the team hopes to find its footing, they will look to the veteran leadership of Le’Toi Adams to provide experience on the floor.


While in a period of flux, this season will be representative of what is to come for UW-W. The team has three true freshmen that they will likely build around over the next three years.

“They have so much potential, but they’re still just 18 years old,” Schwab said.


Beyond the freshmen, look for grad student Mandy Willmore to make a splash this season. A player from a stand-up basketball background, she has tremendous instincts on the court and may be the person to fill the shooting gap left by Zurbrugg.


To jumpstart the growth of the team, Schwab said they have placed extra emphasis on team chemistry this year. Because the team is largely at the same level on the court, there is a spirit of camaraderie and pushing each other to get better every day.


“If you don’t have chemistry, you don’t have a team. So, I think what our girls are doing to build those relationships is awesome,” Schwab said.


Schwab said she is hoping to continue the sisterhood on and off the court, using her motto for the season: “if you have a flame, you can light somebody else’s candle.” Meaning each player has knowledge and confidence to give to their teammates.


The team kicks off its season with a big home tournament in Whitewater on November 19th and 20th, which will feature 4 of the 6 women’s collegiate teams (CUNY and UT-A will not be in attendance).


While the team may not be national champions at the end of the year, it will be a telling season for the future of Warhawk basketball.

 

4. (tie) University of Arizona


The Wildcats are a bit of a wildcard this season. It is just the second year the team is playing in the collegiate division and they are operating under first-year head coach Josie Aslakson.

Aslakson certainly brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the game, as well as a spark of young charisma. She was on Team USA in Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympics and at just 27-years-old she can relate to her team in a way not many other coaches in the collegiate game can.


“The coaching thing kind of fell into my lap and the best way I didn't see myself as being a coach down the line,” she said. “I'm passionate about working with these girls because they're awesome, but it's definitely just been hard for me to find my teaching role now.”

U of A was in the midst of establishing itself as an official collegiate team when COVID hit, then their head coach stepped down amid the pandemic.


Now, they find themselves in an extreme construction mode. They are trying to fill their bench with enough players to field a team while also having enough talent to compete with the likes of Alabama, Illinois, and UT-A.


Aslakson said the goal for this season is to point the ship in the right direction for future generations of Wildcats basketball.


“I think now it's just about chemistry and coming back together to remember the fundamentals and establish our strategy and our team culture,” she said.

But just because the team is new, don’t expect them to be pushovers on the court. They bring some serious height and speed, especially in the post. Their offensive game plan runs through their two bigs: Emilee Gustafson and Jordan Kozloski.


“When they got recruited they made a decision to kind of be the heart and soul of this team,” Aslakson said. “They chose to take a leap of faith and go start this program.”


They also have smaller players with speed, such as Shanayha Welsh, who can dish the ball to the bigs and get them the looks they need to put up big numbers.


Arizona begins their season with a tournament November 11-13th at UT-A where they will test their skills against the Mavericks and the Crimson Tide.

 

6. City University of New York (CUNY)


CUNY is a bit of an experiment this season. This is the team’s first season in the collegiate division, and, coming off the heels of the pandemic, it will certainly be interesting to see how they develop. CUNY is also fielding one team for the entire school system, which spans 22 campuses across all five boroughs of New York City.


The team is spread out and has limited practices together three times per week. But finally making the leap into the collegiate division was a big step for them. Head Coach Ryan Martin said the players on the team have stepped up and have taken the challenge of being the newcomers in stride.


“Our ladies have really kind of bought into this and understand that it's going to be a tough challenge in the beginning,” he said.


The piecemealed team doesn’t exactly expect to put up big numbers on the scoreboard or have the flashiest stat book. Martin said this season was about being a pillar for the future of CUNY basketball and ensuring a long, successful future for women’s wheelchair in NYC.

“We can't change the fact that we're a first-year program, but we can go out there and play the best game, we can and work towards getting better and so we're looking at, you know, the opportunity to do those things,” Martin said.


The team is all underclassmen, so they likely have the opportunity to build around young talent and make a name for themselves two or three years down the line.


“We talk about being accountable,” Martin said. “Accountable to yourself, accountable to the team and accountable to the long-term vision of what we want this program to do.”


Martin said he expects the first matchups to be a bumpy ride, but luckily the team will have some time to take the training wheels off before it heads into intercollegiate competition.

“I'm just not a person who needs a paycheck, and so this to me gives me tremendous purpose to kind of fill this out, and I think it's a I think it's long overdue for New York City,” Martin said.


They begin the season November 19 against local club teams. Due to New York state COVID restrictions, however, CUNY won’t be allowed to travel until February. They will have their first taste of college competition in their February 11 matchup against Illinois.



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