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Gwinnett Heat heads to playoffs

Staff Photo: John Bohn Brice Croxton, 17, a senior at North Gwinnett High School, works the ball down court during a practice of the Gwinnett Heat, an adapted wheelchair sports program at Monarch School in Duluth.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Brice Croxton, 17, a senior at North Gwinnett High School, works the ball down court during a practice of the Gwinnett Heat, an adapted wheelchair sports program at Monarch School in Duluth.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Rony Jacob, 18, a senior at Peachtree Ridge High School, center front, rolls down court during a practice of the Gwinnett Heat, an adapted wheelchair sports program at Monarch School in Duluth. At rear are Kathy Luna, 8 of New Holland Elementary School in Gainesville and Brice Croxton, 17, of North Gwinnett High School.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Kathy Luna, 8, and a student at New Holland Elementary School in Gainesville, is a first year player with the Gwinnett Heat, an adapted wheelchair sports program. They conduct practices at Monarch School in Duluth.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Martinez Johnson, 18, left, of Buford High School, works for a rebound against Trintney Whitsel, right, an 11th grade student at Mountain View High School. They play basketball with the Gwinnett Heat, an adapted wheelchair sports program that holds practice at Monarch School in Duluth.

SUWANEE -- Brice Croxton can't be stopped.

Ten broken ribs, two crushed vertebrae and a severed spinal column couldn't keep him from his passion.

As the "quiet leader" on the Gwinnett Heat adapted sports basketball team, Croxton's determination rubs off on fellow players, said District Coordinator Mike Phillips.

He must be doing something right. The team is 5-0, heading into its final game of the regular season on Saturday against the DeKalb Siver Streaks at Henderson Middle School.In March, the local undefeated hoops stars are headed to the semifinals, their first time in the playoffs in several years.

"I think we're playing extremely well this year," Phillips said. "It's the first time we've been undefeated in basketball. Wheelchair basketball is truly a team sport, and that's how this team plays it," Phillips said.

Croxton, 17, a North Gwinnett High School senior, has been playing team sports his whole life. He started soccer at the age of 3, zipping deftly past other pee wee athletes.

These days, Croxton moves just as swiftly on the basketball court, his arms pumping in tandem, wheelchair gliding over the glossy wooden grain.

Calloused palms grip the handrails as he skids to a stop, passing the ball to teammate Martinez Johnson, 18.

Johnson, a Buford High School senior, said he and Croxton have got an almost-psychic link on the court.

"It's hard to explain," Johnson said. "But we know how to read each other when we're out there."

Johnson, Croxton and Rony Jacob are the team's veteran players. Jacob, 18, said he's enjoyed the past four years on the team. "I like this because it's a lot of fun," said Jacob, a senior at Peachtree Ridge. "I think we will do good in the semifinals, because we have good communication."

Croxton concurred.

"That's why we do well, because of the communication skills," Croxton said. "We all know what each other is thinking. It keeps us working together as a team."

Phillips said that's the idea behind the Gwinnett County Public Schools' Adapted Sports program.

"We all know the lessons we can learn from athletics like teamwork, hard work and sacrifice," Phillips said. "That's all incorporated in the adapted sports program. It gives these kids a chance to be a part of the team, to represent the school system, and it teaches them what it's like to help their peers become better with hard work."

Added Phillips: "Those are life skills they can take beyond the basketball court."

He said that extends to all three of the school system's Gwinnett Heat programs: basketball, handball and football.

When he's not playing basketball, Croxton is quarterback on the football team.

In both sports, Phillips said, Croxton is "the guy all the other players look to ... he's one of the key players in this program."

Phillips said it's hard to imagine "what all that boy has been through to get to where he is today."

"Here's a young man whose life totally changed four years ago," Phillips said. "He hasn't let that affect what he wants to accomplish."

On Jan. 4, 2008, Croxton was in a skiing accident in Breckenridge, Colo.

"I don't remember a whole lot about it," Croxton said. "The last run down the mountain, on the last day of our stay there I had a bad accident. I was out completely. My dad thought I was dead."

He spent the next 51 days recovering in the hospital.

Despite the incident, Croxton has continued to live his life with total independence.

"I watch him come to practice," Phillips said. "He's got a car with special controls so he can drive himself to practice. He's got an apparatus in his car where he can hook up his wheelchair and get in and out by himself."

Added Phillips: "He comes into the gym, and he comes over and gets into his sports wheelchair, straps himself in and he's ready to go."

Phillips said Croxton "leads by example. He's not a rah rah kind of guy. He's quiet, and he plays as hard as he's capable of playing. He wants to succeed, and he wants his team to be successful.

Croxton is glad he's got the Gwinnett Heat.

"I love sports, any kind of competition really," he said. "I know I could never play all the other sports I used to, but I can play this, and it's a lot of fun."

The young man hopes to see his basketball team win the semi-finals in March. "We'll do our best, no matter what happens," he said.

Gwinnett Heat players

Stephen Hobson, Lanier Middle

Keitra Douglas, Berkmar High

Kathy Luna, New Holland Elementary

Trintney Whitsel, Mountain View High

Derek Clarous, Lilburn Middle

Martinez Johnson, Buford High School

Brice Croxton, North Gwinnett High

Rony Jacob, Peachtree Ridge High

Giselle Zavala, Shiloh Middle