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CLINE: Wheelchair team makes mark, memories

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Brice Croxton (30) celebrates with teammate Martinez Johnson (23) and Stephen Hobson (10) after defeating the West Georgia Wolverines 22-18 in the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday. The Heat completed an undefeated season as well as winning their first state championship.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Brice Croxton (30) celebrates with teammate Martinez Johnson (23) and Stephen Hobson (10) after defeating the West Georgia Wolverines 22-18 in the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday. The Heat completed an undefeated season as well as winning their first state championship.

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Gwinnett Heat - Wheelchair Basketball State Champs

The Gwinnett Heat won the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship in overtime on Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

The Gwinnett Heat won the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship in overtime on Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

To fully appreciate this column, it's best to view the video that goes with it. If you're reading online, the video is located at the left. If you're reading the print edition, please take the time to go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/videos to see the Gwinnett Heat in action. I promise it's worth the effort.

The Gwinnett Heat are a high school wheelchair basketball team, part of the county's Adapted Sports program. After Friday's efforts at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, the players can also call themselves champions. The Heat beat West Georgia 22-18 last week to finish the season undefeated. The medals each player received were great, the memories even better.

Mike Phillips has worked in education for 34 years. He's been a football coach at the old Peachtree High in DeKalb County and at Brookwood, and an athletic director at Grayson, helping build the sports programs there from infancy. He's had other jobs at other schools as well, but few have touched him as much as his role as adapted sports coordinator for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

"In all of my years in education, it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done," Phillips said of his current position and winning the state title. "Seeing Martinez's and Brice's faces light up holding that trophy, I almost felt like a proud daddy."

Martinez Johnson and Brice Croxton are two of the four team members who played for the state title two years ago along with Rony Jacob and Trintney Whitsel. Seeing them, along with teammates Stephen Hobson, Keitra Douglas, Kathy Luna, Derek Clarous and Giselle Zavala, finally get the ultimate victory proved a lot of what Phillips has always preached to the Heat.

"It made everything come full circle for those kids," Phillips said. "I tell them: If you work hard in life, good things will happen to you. They saw the results of that hard work, not just from this year but the years before.

"I think we can all think back to the teams we played on (when we were kids), the memories we had, the friends we made and the lessons we learned. (These kids) get to learn those lessons and develop those friendships."

And make those memories.

Phillips also wants you to watch the video. Because it's hard to fully appreciate how hard it is to play basketball sitting down. In years past, the boys teams from Norcross and North Gwinnett tried out the chairs, only to watch as their shots turned into airballs. The Heat players may be in chairs, but the rim is still 10-feet high and the game is difficult, yet fun.

"If we can get people out there to see it, they can understand the game a lot better," Phillips said.

Gwinnett's adapted sports program includes handball in the fall and football in the spring. It's Phillips' hope that competing in high school will lead to the participants staying active as adults. But that doesn't mean the present shouldn't be enjoyed fully.

Phillips used Croxton, who was injured in a skiing accident, as an example of what the program offers.

"He was a competitor (before his accident), and the thing about wheelchair sports is we're able to give him that part of his life back," Phillips said. "The thing that's been the biggest blessing through wheelchair sports is we're able to give the kids a chance to compete."

Last week, the Heat not only got a chance to compete, but the opportunity to experience the jubilation that comes with winning a championship. If you'd like to see what that looks like, please take a minute to check out the video. You'll be glad you did.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.