Endurance crucial to MU Wheelchair Basketball's success

Saturday, February 4, 2012 | 7:57 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — MU Wheelchair Basketball player Joe Dixon is sweaty. His hands are black with dirt and grease from the wheels of his wheelchair. So whenever he wipes the sweat away, the smudging spreads to his temples before being carried slowly down his cheekbones by more sweat.

The thing is, he's still waiting for tip off.

As tired as he looked, Dixon was unstoppable against the Kansas Wheelhawks, scoring 26 points in the MU Wheelchair Basketball team's 73-44 victory over Kansas on Saturday at the MU Student Recreation Complex. The win was the team's second of the afternoon, the first coming just more than two hours earlier when Dixon also led with 26 points in a 77-52 victory.

After the second win, Dixon tried wiping the sweat from his face again without adding any more dirt smudges. Double-headers aren't out of the ordinary for him. His team often schedules them because other teams usually have to travel long distances and pay to rent gym space, MU Wheelchair Basketball head coach Ron Lykins said.

Dixon said playing back-to-back games makes it easy for him to remain focused.

"Your adrenaline just doesn't stop," Dixon said. "With that short of a break, you're always in game mode. You don't really have time to sit and relax. You're just thinking about the next game and what you have to do to win that game, so your brain never turns off until the second game is over."

Both physical and mental endurance are key components to the success of the team. MU assistant coach Brendan Downes said the team's rigorous practice schedule has prepared them for the challenge.

"To be honest, I think it's tougher on the other guys," Downes said. "We play five days a week, and we're practicing two and a half hours a day, so by the time you're done with a double-header, you're done playing your usual practice time."

Downes said many of the players became used to playing for long stretches in high school. Downes and three other players on the team (his younger brother Connor Downes, Dixon and freshman Robert Doyle) all played for the Jr. Rolling Timberwolves, a Minnesota team in the junior division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

"Sometimes the Timberwolves were playing five games in one day," Downes said. "You go into it, and it's weird because you're so physically tired, but you're in that physical groove where you've been playing all day, but you just want to keep playing. You might be a little bit slower back and forth, but mentally you're still sharp."

To maintain such a level of conditioning without interfering with the players' class schedules, the team practices every morning from 6 to 8:30 a.m. and holds a "boot camp" workout every Wednesday with the team trainer.

Junior Carter Arey, who came off the bench in both games and scored a combined 42 points, said Lykins has prepared them well for the physical demands of the schedule.

"I think Coach has built it in our minds once we're in the gym, it's time to go to work, and we don't let up until that's over," Arey said. "When we're in here, we're focused, and we're conditioned to handle these types of games."

This level of conditioning and play doesn't come without a cost, however. Dixon said the hardest part about early mornings isn't so much getting up, but rather having to go to sleep so early.

"Some college students can pull an all-nighter and go to class the next day and kind of space out in class and that's fine," Dixon said. "But if I pull an all-nighter, wake up at 5:30 a.m. and go to practice, I'll screw up a drill or do something and get yelled at for it, so I can't really afford to not get sleep."

Not surprisingly, Dixon isn't the only one who's challenged by the early practice schedule. Arey also said it's rough, but added that the team's adviser helps them schedule in time to unwind every day.

"We work with an adviser who helps us schedule out every single hour of our day, so time management has really been hit home to us. We have a couple hours every day to do nothing but relax. It's a lifestyle."

The MU Wheelchair Basketball team plays its final home game of the season at 8 p.m. Feb. 29 against the Missouri Predators.

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