PERRY -- Opponents of the Houston County Sharks wheelchair basketball team might think its not quite fair.
Not only is the team returning with every member of its reigning state championship squad, but its also getting instruction from one of the top wheelchair basketball coaches in the nation.
Ron Lykins, head coach of the University of Missouris wheelchair basketball team, is helping the Sharks hone their skills in a camp being held at Perry Middle School. The camp began Thursday and runs through Monday.
Lykins has been chosen as head coach of the U.S. mens wheelchair basketball team in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The Sharks are made up of students from schools across Houston County, and also compete in handball and football. Last year they won state titles in all three.
It gives them a sense of community because every one of these students are in a different school and they dont get to interact with students with similar disabilities, said Christy Jones, area coordinator of the Houston County Adaptive Sports Program.
While the camp was open to any student with a physical disability, as it turned out all of the participants were Sharks.
During a break from working with the players Saturday, Lykins said he became involved with wheelchair basketball in college when he was looking for a way to collect some volunteer hours. He was impressed with the competitiveness and spirit of the players, and has been coaching it ever since.
I quickly saw that it was just basketball, he said. There were differences, but it was basketball. I really enjoyed it and there was a need for coaches.
He said the keys to it are no different from regular basketball, in that players have to master the fundamentals.
In able-bodied basketball you have to have good footwork, and here you have to have good chair skills, he said. Your hands are your feet and your arms are your legs.
Players do not have to be confined to a wheelchair, and some of the Sharks can walk. They just have to have a physical disability that prevents them from competing in regular sports.
One of the star athletes of the Sharks is Ja-Que Billingsley,a rising senior at Northside High School. When he was a freshman, his right leg had to be amputated as a result of a wrestling accident.
He can walk with the use of a prosthetic, and is a defensive lineman of the regular varsity football team. He can bench press over 400 pounds. Last year was his first with the Sharks.
Ive gotten a better understanding of other disabled people, he said. Ive made new friends and its helping me try new things. It helps me see my problem isnt that big compared to others.
Jones said people often confuse the adaptive sports program with the Special Olympics, which is for youths with intellectual disabilities. The Sharks have only physical disabilities, and some of them are honor students. They have to meet the same requirements as other athletes in keeping up their grades in order to compete.
There arent that many adaptive sports programs in the state. Jones said there are only seven other teams, with most of the others in the Atlanta area. Houstons is the only one in the southern half of the state, she said.
Part of the reason, she said, may be budget issues. While players can compete in a regular wheelchair, a special sports chair is designed to take the abuse of competition and provide maneuverability. Those are custom-made and cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Jones said the Houston program relies on grants and donations.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.