Red Dawgs basketball team loves to compete

Red Dawgs basketball team loves to compete
More than just The University of South Dakota women's and men's basketball teams will be in competition on the DakotaDome court Feb. 2.

An elite group of athletes will demonstrate their basketball skills in exhibition play during breaks in the Coyote action.

The members of this team don't run up and down the court.

They roll.

Members of Red Dawgs basketball team will demonstrate their mastery of dribbling, setting up plays, shooting and rebounding while remaining in a wheelchair.

One of the young athletes who has gained a strong dominance in the sport is Vermillion's own Dylan Fischbach.

"Dylan is a very special, talented young man," said Dave Ruback, of Omaha, NE, who coaches the Red Dawgs team with another Omaha man, Mike Kult.

"For the last few years, every tournament we've gone to – and Dylan plays for the prep team – he has been named either the most valuable player or has been on the first all tournament team," Dave said.

The coach added that Dylan possesses a great deal of natural athletic ability. "But he works at it, too," he said. "My understanding is that he's in the DakotaDome shooting all of the time. He's a very talented young man, and he has great opportunities ahead of him playing wheelchair basketball."

Mike Kult began the wheelchair basketball program 15 years ago. Dave has been involved as a coach for four years, but been involved with the program for the past 12 years.

The young athletes who participate in the Red Dawgs program aren't afraid to work hard to perfect the sport.

"We practice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha from September through March," Dave said.

The practice sessions are held every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. until noon.

"One of the reasons we can't practice more is the makeup of our team today includes kids from quite a large geographic area," the coach said. "We have kids from South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri. A lot of the families travel anywhere from just a few minutes if they live in Omaha, to several hours each way to come practice every Saturday."

Members of the Red Dawgs don't mind the travel time to participate in a sport they love. Wheelchair basketball provides opportunities to the young athletes to participate competitively on the hard court.

"To play wheelchair basketball, you have to have an irreversible lower extremity disability," Dave said. "You don't have to be in a wheelchair full time to play wheelchair basketball."

The Vermillion community is familiar with Dylan's courage in the face of adversity. He hasn't let the cancer that afflicted him as an infant, and that forced doctors to amputate part of one leg, slow him down one bit.

Other members of the Red Dawgs team are also winning off the court by successfully dealing with a range of health problems.

"We have a lot of spina bifida kids, some with cerebral palsy, and there might be some other lower extremity disabilities," Dave said. "Some of the kids may also have learning disabilities or other nervous system or mental issues that make the game more challenging for them."

Just how important is wheelchair basketball to these young athletes?

"For these kids, it's the equivalent of trying out and playing for your high school team," Dave said. "They do it because they have a passion for playing, they have a passion to compete, and it also creates an environment for team. They learn to become part of a team."

The Red Dawgs are part of the Eastern Nebraska Wheelchair Athletic Association. The team is self-funded, with parents of the team members helping to provide funds to allow the team to travel and compete.

The team also participates in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, which organizes the sport at all levels throughout the United States.

The closest team to the Red Dawgs is located in Minneapolis, MN. Other teams are located in Chicago, IL and Denver, CO.

"We have to travel," the coach said. "That's the only way we get to play games. So, obviously, we have to do a lot of fundraising."

The Red Dawgs includes a prep team, made up of boys up to 12 years old and girls up to 13 years old. The entire team is made up of young athletes ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old.

"The prep team is where the kids learn the game," Dave said. "From there, it's kind of like high school. We have a junior varsity and a varsity division, made up of kids ages 12 up, and they compete under the rules of the NCAA."

The Red Dawgs team travels to not only compete in regular season games. They also travel to cities that host regional tournaments, and if the teams place first or second at those events, it qualifies for the national championship tournament that is held either in February or March.

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association prep national championships will be held in late February in Atlanta, GA.

"Last year, this group of kids that we have finished third in the national championship," Dave said, "and we've returned most of the kids of last year's team, so we're pretty excited about our chances."

The junior varsity championships will be held in Omaha in early March.

Athletes who stick with wheelchair basketball will find a host of opportunities waiting for them as they grow older, the coach said.

"There are college programs," he said. "There are 12 or 13 colleges that play wheelchair basketball, and they have scholarships available. These kids have goals of playing college basketball."

In fact, one former Red Dawgs team member is today playing professional wheelchair basketball in Europe.

"These kids work hard. Our practices are organized and regimented, and we just don't go there and show up and play," Dave said. "We go through development, and we hit them aerobically – they're doing a lot of pushing."

The Red Dawgs won't skip their usual Saturday practice, despite the fact that the team will be in Vermillion rather than Omaha Feb. 2.

"We're going to practice in the DakotaDome Saturday afternoon," Dave said, "and actually, the practice will be a lot more intense than the game. These kids just love to play."

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