DOWNEY - The Rancho Varsity Wheelchair Basketball team created its own version of March Madness when it swept to victory in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's West Coast Conference Championship Tournament March 5-6 in Seattle.The victory came on the heels of a first-place finish at the Western Regional Junior Wheelchair Basketball Tournament held last month in Northern California. Today the Rancho Renegades Varsity team, which is sponsored by Las Floristas, is ranked sixth in the nation. As a team we are peaking at the right time," says Rancho Wheelchair Sports Director Lisa Hilborn, the reigning NWBA Coach of the Year. Their latest victories sealed the Rancho high school age team's invitation to the NWBA National Championships, which will be held in Denver the week of April 6-10. This is especially amazing, because the Rancho team graduated several key players from the team that finished second in the nation last year and then lost its point guard to a season-ending surgery earlier this year. Early this season, the Renegades made a team decision to step up its pace by volunteering to have an extra practice per week as well as committing to extra individual shooting time by each athlete. "This dedication has led to rapid improvement that not only helped us step up a notch, it catapulted the Rancho Renegades into the national spotlight again this year," coach Hilborn says. The Varsity team has been led by Daniel Nong and Clayton Brackett. "They are intelligent and gifted athletes who have the hearts of lions," Coach Hilborn says. Daniel and Clayton are both graduating seniors who will soon be playing wheelchair sports at the University of Illinois. Daniel led the team in scoring and played inspired defense. "Daniel is tall, fast, smart and a great leader," coach Hilborn says. "He has played ball with us since he was 7 years old. Not only is he our spark, he has learned to be unflappable. He was double or triple-teamed most of these tournaments and yet he continually found a way to work with his teammates to get open and find his way into the paint to score or pass off to teammates for easy baskets." Daniel was selected to the all-conference team and named the MVP of both tournaments. "Throughout my short life, I have been challenged both mentally and physically," Daniel says. "Growing up with a physical disability after my left leg was amputated has played a major role in those tribulations, but luckily I was given the chance to play wheelchair sports." "Before I played wheelchair sports I was a passive, shy kid, but playing sports unleashed the passion and the desire within me," he says. "Now I believe anything is possible. I aspire to inspire in life just as my Rancho family has done for me over the years." "One day, I know I will achieve my dreams of playing on the Paralympic basketball team and then becoming a therapist," Daniel says. "It is a long road towards my dreams, and I don't know how long it will take me to get where I want to be, but I do know I won't stop until I get there." Clayton was also a leading scorer in both recent tournaments. "He has an uncanny sense of where to be at the right time," Coach Hilborn says. "He is able to determine the most effective time to release his defensive game for the fast break layup. He is 'money' on this shot and in addition to getting points for us, it always demoralizes the other team." Through exhibiting a level of poise that is uncommon in athletes his age, Clayton earns respect and sets the tone for his teammates. "Even when he becomes the focal point of the opposing team's defense, he responds extremely well to the pressure," Coach Hilborn says. "He is one of those rare athletes who finds a way to capitalize on being in the right place at the most opportune times." "My life goal as of right now is to be a great wheelchair basketball player," Clayton says. "I would love the opportunity to play on the U.S. Paralympic team and then play overseas. I am also aspiring to get a business degree so that someday I can start my own company." Last week, it was announced that Clayton has been invited to the USA Men's National Team selection trials for the 2011 Parapan American Games and the 2012 Paralympics, another step on the road to reaching his life goals. "When I was younger, I was very conscious about who I was and what people thought of me because of my spinal cord injury," he says. "But when I decided to join the Rancho Renegades. I was greeted with open arms not only by the Coach, but by the whole team. They brought me in as if I was family. This gave me a spark and a belief that I could do so much more." Coach Hilborn beamed with pride when she discussed the accomplishments of her Varsity squad. "I am very proud of the young men on our Varsity team, because they play better as a team than any I have every coached. " coach Hilborn says. "They have developed a bond that far exceeds the court." "They use each athlete's assets to the greatest degree I have ever witnessed at any level of Rancho ball," she says. "I love my Rancho Varsity team and cherish the time and space with them, as they develop into strong, healthy young men through sport." Her team members also feel participating in wheelchair basketball has been a very worthwhile experience. "Rancho has not only given me a second family, but has given me opportunities outside of the program to be who I want to be in life," Clayton says. "I am soon going to be playing for one of the best college teams in the nation. I couldn't be any more proud of myself, and my parents couldn't be any more proud of me, either." "Rancho has taught me that the only limitations in life are in the minds of those that place boundaries upon themselves," Daniel says. "The most important lesson I have learned is to dream well today, so that tomorrow I can achieve those dreams and help others achieve their dreams as well." So now it's on to Denver and the Nationals for these outstanding young men. No matter where they place in the tournament, one thing is certain: Daniel, Clayton and the Rancho Renegades are already winners in the game of life. For more information, call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit www.rancho.org.
********** Published: March 10, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 47