'Kentucky of the wheelchair basketball world': How a Division III school built a dynasty

Wisconsin-Whitewater is home to one of the most dominant sports programs the state has ever seen.

The Warhawks’ wheelchair basketball teams are national powerhouses, with the men and women combining for 16 championships since 1982.

Whitewater players and alumni are heavily represented on Team USA for international competitions, including the upcoming International Wheelchair Basketball Federation America’s Cup in São Paulo, Brazil. That event, which begins July 9, is a qualifier for the world championships in November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Jeremy “Opie” Lade and Christina Schwab know the rich Whitewater tradition and have helped keep the standards high.

“I actually was at the very first adaptive sport camp here at Whitewater in 1993 and have been bleeding purple ever since,” Lade said.

Whitewater prides itself on being one of the most wheelchair-accessible campuses in the nation. The men’s wheelchair basketball team started almost 50 years ago.

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The 41-year-old Lade won a couple of championships as a Whitewater player under Tracy Chynoweth. Then Lade took over as head coach in 2008 and led the Warhawks to six championships in 11 seasons before stepping down in 2020. He works as an academic adviser at the school and still lends his expertise to the wheelchair players.

Schwab, 41, grew up in Dane, Wisconsin, and also attended camps at Whitewater. But she played at the University of Illinois because the Warhawks didn’t have a women’s team until 2008. After a successful playing career, including winning three Paralympic gold medals, Schwab started coaching and was hired by Whitewater in 2016. Former Warhawks coach Dan Price won three straight women’s championships from 2012-14.

“One of the coolest things about Whitewater is how they embrace wheelchair basketball,” Schwab said. “Even when I’m recruiting athletes, I always talk about how on this campus, people usually just assume you play wheelchair basketball if you have a disability.

“Not everybody plays wheelchair basketball, but that’s the cool part about this. You’re not just a face in the crowd here. If you’re on the wheelchair basketball team, they know about it. We have fans that follow us.”

'Kentucky of the wheelchair basketball world': How a Division III school built a dynasty

Taking over the international stage

Schwab took over as Team USA’s women’s coach after leading the American men to a gold medal at the Paralympics in Tokyo last year. Two Whitewater players, Josie DeHart and Mandy Willmore, are on the roster while former Warhawk Lindsey Zurbrugg is one of the veteran standouts.

“She’s got a lot of game experience and that kid can shoot,” Schwab said of Zurbrugg. “Anywhere. She’s got the three-ball. She’s got a lot. She’s got a big offensive package, I would say.”

The U.S. men’s team has a big Whitewater contingent with current and former Warhawks Talen Jourdan, Jeromie Meyer, Dylan Fischbach and John Boie.

The 31-year-old Boie played for Lade and also works as an academic adviser at Whitewater.

“I was definitely blessed to kind of grow up in the backyard of Whitewater, being from Milton (Wisconsin),” Boie said. “But Whitewater being the Duke or Kentucky of the wheelchair basketball world definitely makes it a great destination.”

Boie, who won gold in Tokyo, is a key leader with nine newcomers to the national team.

“Traveling internationally, every other team in the world is way bigger,” Boie said. “A lot of these guys haven’t played overseas, so that’s a big learning curve to meet that international game. It’s a lot more physical, it’s a lot more higher paced. It’s fast. It’s very different.”

Wheelchair basketball is five-on-five, but there are classification values for players.

“You can be anywhere from a 1 to a 4.5 with half-points in between,” Lade said. “That goes based on the amount you can do when you sit in a wheelchair.

“So Talen as a Class 1 has the least amount of physical function when he’s out on the floor. Again, that doesn’t mean he’s the worst basketball player on the floor. That means he can’t use his abs. He’s not using his back muscle. He doesn’t have as many physical abilities as some people that are going to be on the basketball floor.

“At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a 4.5, you’re probably looking at your single-amps. So when they’re sitting in their wheelchair they can still use both their legs, whatever’s left of the other one. They got abs, they got back. So when they move, when they pass, when they shoot, they just physically have the ability to use more tools.”

Teams are limited to how many total classification points are on floor at any given time, with 14 being the standard.

'Kentucky of the wheelchair basketball world': How a Division III school built a dynasty

Staying at the top

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association has 12 teams in its men’s intercollegiate division, including Illinois, Arizona and Alabama.

“I think it’s kind of cool to see these other big schools that offer these huge scholarships and have these big facilities and Whitewater is just kind of blue collar and people that want to work hard,” Boie said. “If you want to get better, this is where you come to play against the best and to become the best.”

The women’s division includes six teams.

“I’m not really that old and the fact that I had to choose between really just one school that had an established women’s team about 20 years ago,” Schwab said, “And now women have the opportunity to choose between six universities and where they want to go.

“I think that’s amazing growth. Really that’s what I want to see within wheelchair basketball on the States-side. Internationally, we have a lot of potential in this country. So it’s really important that we keep girls involved in the game.”

A.J. Messmer has taken over as the men’s coach at Whitewater, but Lade has shown how the winning tradition is passed on through the years.

“Success is one of those tricky things to breed,” Lade said. “Because ultimately it takes more than just practicing wheelchair basketball and getting good at wheelchair basketball.

“There is the aspect of having fun during that process. There’s the aspect of being successful in the classroom so all of our athletes are eligible to get on the floor. There’s the process of bringing kids into camps and making sure they know how much fun we have and enjoying the process of not only becoming successful in wheelchair basketball but also in life.”

Contact Ben Steele at (414) 224-2676 or bmsteele@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenSteeleMJS or Instagram at @bensteele_mjs

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White Water Rafting or KayakingMount Fuji Overnight Climb ItinerarySip & Gogh Paint Studio: Unleash Your Inner Van Gogh | LakwatseroBatanes ItineraryHow to Get to Quitinday HillsAbout Callao CaveDiscover LakawonBiking to Taal: A Fun Ride to Batangas’ Heritage TownAntique Blooming: The Rafflesia of San RemigioMalasimbo Lights and Dance FestivalBacolod ItineraryPoon HillAttractions in Mirador Heritage and Eco ParkHulhumale Public BeachRomblon Island: Bonbon Beach, Tiamban Beach & MoreAdventure in Sabah: White Water Rafting in Padas River | LakwatseroHow to Get to Hinakpan Mystical HillsWelcome to Lake SebuAbout CasiguranAbout BuscalanHow to Go to Kalanggaman IslandFaro de Cabo Bojeador (Cape Bojeador Lighthouse)Backpacking Maldives: Budget Itinerary, Expenses & TipsHow to Get ThereOffbeat Bohol Itinerary: 3D/2N of AdventuresHow to Get to Tawi-TawiAlona BeachPangilatan Falls: The Forgotten Gem of Tapaz, CapizWorld War I: SMS Cormoran II3D/2N Taiwan Itinerary: Taipei – Yehliu – ShiffenLaos for Backpackers: Getting There on a BudgetBasic RequirementsHow to Get to Antong FallsCathedral CaveHow to Go to Gubat, SorsogonAbout SadangaHow to Get to Bugui Point LighthouseHow to Get to Cabra Island LighthouseCebu Itinerary: Three-Day Adventures in the SouthAbout AndaLuna: A Day in the Show Window of Apayao | LakwatseroMargues Blue LagoonFinding Palaui’s Cape Engaño Lighthouse | LakwatseroHow to Get to Mantayupan Falls of Barili, CebuHow to Get to MaligcongLinapacan Islands: Between Paradise | LakwatseroKLIA to KLCCHow to Get to JomaligBanaug ShoalEspadang Bato – Payaran Falls Day Hike Itinerary10 Remarkable Philippine Destinations for Solo TravelMiagao Church: A UNESCO World Heritage Site in IloiloAbout Carbin ReefAbout Parola IslandCabra WreckageCobra Falls: Ozamiz City’s Best Kept SecretBasco: The Chapel on the Hill of Tukon | LakwatseroBack in Kathmandu’s Lovely Mess | LakwatseroHimalayan Adventure: Kathmandu to Pokhara Overland | LakwatseroItineraryChinatown Vancouver (Stop #23)Situbo Falls: Tampilisan's Awesome SurpriseHow to Get to Inambakan FallsTuasan Falls: Another Camiguin’s Charmer | LakwatseroHow to Get to Lake SebuMarinduque Loop: Biking in the Heart of the Philippines1. 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