That's how we roll! Rollin' Hornets 4 teams leave Wichita with two national titles, two runners-up
By Steve Goldberg
Just as he was getting to Charlotte last year to start a new position with Visa, Ryan Neiswender was preparing to leave. He had a previous appointment with the USA Paralympic men's wheelchair basketball team in Tokyo to compete in the games that had been delayed a year.
When he spoke that fall with Mike Godsey who oversees the Rollin' Hornets junior and adult basketball teams which compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, Neiswender suggested that they put a team into the top D1 flight as that was where most of his Paralympic teammates would be.
Indeed, that was an option as another Paralympian, Gail Gaeng, who won a gold medal with the USA women's team at Rio 2016, had also recently moved to Charlotte. Though that was coincidental, she and Neiswender had known each other as junior players growing up in the Baltimore area and both played collegiately at the University of Illinois.
A very practical man, Godsey responded, "How about we play D2 this season and win it all."
To which, Neiswender, who won a gold medal in Tokyo, replied, "If we play D2, we will win it all."
And so they did, the fourth-ranked Charlotte taking the NWBA D2 title 69-67 over the second-seeded Cincinnati Royals. It wasn't easy. It was inspired.
Neiswender was the hero in the semifinal, leading the Rollin' Hornets from a 7-point deficit with two minutes to play and scoring the winning basket at the buzzer. Gaeng scored the winning points with 6.1 seconds left in the game on an assist from Neiswender.
The MVP for the D2 final though was 17-year-old Preston Howell IV, a South Point High School in Belmont, who fit seamlessly with his world class teammates and other older, more experienced teammates scoring 28 points.
The influence of the two Paralympians not only raised the game of Howell and his fellow high-schooler Adam Smith but also veteran players like Pete Morgan and Mack Johnson who played significant roles over the course of the tournament.
Every player who has reached the Paralympic level knows that it's not the last play that matters but the next one. That gave Gaeng the confidence, after missing two late free throws, to score her most important basket of the game, the one that put them ahead at the end.
"I was pretty bummed, pretty down on myself but I knew 'next play'," she told Sports N Spokes after the game. "I knew we would get a great defensive stop and I knew that when that ball got in my hands from Ryan's great pass, I knew that was going in."
The Charlotte Rollin' Hornets, a program of Abilities Unlimited Carolinas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, rolled into Wichita last week with four teams ranked fourth or better in two adult and two junior divisions. All four made the finals and two finished the year as national champions.
The high school level Varsity team, seeded second coming in, had a much more drama-free final, establishing dominance early and rolling to a 67-42 win over the Courage Kenny Jr. Rolling Timberwolves from Minnesota.
Howell was also the final MVP in that game, again scoring 28 points, and was named the overall tournament MVP as well. He was also named the top Academic All-American for the Varsity Division, a recognition that included teammates Adam Smith and Sadie Absher who received first team honors. Both of them also did double duty with the D2 team.
Smith had 11 points and 11 rebounds in the final. Landon Benton, who also played for the D3 team, scored 16 points and grabbed 10 boards. First year player Kayden Bagley, still learning the intricacies of the wheelchair game added 8 points and 10 rebounds.
Prep team player Cameron Ruis was named a National Academic Achiever (5th-9th grade), which brought the total to 59 times that Rollin' Hornet student-athletes have been recognized for national academic excellence.
Seeded second, the Prep team finished as runners-up to top-seed Kansas City Kings 31-26. Ruis had a game-high 18 points.
The adult D3 team, seeded third, finished second to the fourth-seed Ft. Lauderdale Memorial Rehabilitation Sharks 51-48. Charlotte's Jeremy Hammond led the team with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
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