Wheelchair Lumberjacks roll to B.C. Games medal

Joel Ewert and Josh Holton relished their roles as ironmen for the North Central Zone 8 wheelchair basketball team

Especially considering it led to a surprise bronze medal result at the B.C. Winter Games two weeks ago in Kamloops.

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In wheelchair basketball, players are assigned a rating based on their level of disability. Some have permanent paralysis which restricts their mobility, as do Ewert and Holton, and some are able-bodied with little or no disability. Player classifications range from 0.5 (most disabled) to 4.5 (least disabled) and at any time on the court the five-player team total cannot exceed 14 points.

Because there were just six players on the Cariboo North East team roster and four of them were able-bodied, because of the rules that meant Ewert, 18, and Holton, 15, never left the court.

"Joel and Josh were forced to play all of the minutes in all of the games, which is a huge achievement physically," said Zone 8 team coach Rob Stiles. "Joel being older, more experienced and having greater strength was one that we were not super worried about, but we were unsure as to how Josh would manage as it is quite a lot. He totally stepped up though, surprising everyone (including a lot of the other coaches there) and even got a basket."

The B.C. Games wheelchair basketball event was open to athletes aged 12-20. Coach Stiles tried to recruit some female players but couldn't find any who were available to the team for the three-day tournament in Kamloops. For Holton, it was an unforgettable trip.

"It was fun and cool to meet so many new people involved with the sport and to catch up with other athletes I haven't seen in a while," Holton said.

"It was certainly a challenge physically having to play all of the minutes. I was totally stoked by the entire experience and to see everyone in one place competing, and then to win a medal as well, memories to last a lifetime."

After finishing the round-robin with a 1-4 record, the Cariboo-North East zone team, unofficially known as the Prince George Lumberjacks, beat Fraser Valley 33-32 in the bronze medal game.

"We went in as underdogs and people weren't expecting much from us, but we played well at the right time and were able to bring home a medal," said Ewert, the Lumberjacks captain.

"It was a great experience for our team and everybody on our team stepped up when it mattered most. It was the first success for a lot of the young guys on our team, and hopefully they can build on it going forward. It was a lot of fun to show them what we were made of."

The Lumberjacks' 25-24 win over Vancouver Coastal (Zone 5) in the five-team round-robin tournament was the first for a Cariboo team at B.C. Games since 2014.

"The group up here in the north doesn't get a lot of competitive play because of the huge travel to get to any of the other places where they play," said Stiles. "When it comes to these kinds of things you have to be fast out of the gate when you're playing competitive sport and we had a game at the beginning we probably should have won. Definitely, everyone there thought we would be at the bottom and we were very happy indeed to get up to third."

Dayln Hein, 13, joined the Lumberjacks this season and just started playing regularly last Christmas, less than two months before he was thrust into a role playing for a B.C. Games medal.

"Our bronze game was so intense, with only winning by one point," said Hein. "The game was going back and forth to the very end, with the other team scoring a three-pointer at literally the last second. So great, Zone 8.

"There was a lot of very friendly and experienced athletes, it was fun to get out and play against new teams with amazing sportsmanship. I made a lot of new friends and I'm looking forwarding to play them again in two years."

Zone 6 (Vancouver Island-Central Coast), which has three provincial youth team players and the B.C. team coach, beat Zone 2 (Thompson-Okanagan) 59-32 in the gold medal game. The Lumberjacks lost 41-20 to Zone 6 in the semifinal round. Seeing the best of his age group in action on the court left 15-year-old Lumberjacks player Riley Stiles hungry for more.

"I had a fantastic time at the Games, it's one of the few opportunities we get to play competitively and to really challenge ourselves," he said.

"I was so proud of how the team improved throughout the weekend. I had high hopes going into the Games but to actually get that first medal, is totally awesome. I can't wait until next time round (in 2020). Fort St. John is pretty close to a home game for us and with the young group we have I think we can aim for gold."

The other Lumberjacks players were Zachary Maurice, 14, and Nicholas Husband, 18.

Ewert and Riley Stiles of the Lumberjacks were selected to receive $500 leadership bursaries from the B.C. Games Society, along with Prince George biathlete Brynn Witwicki. The money can be used for education or to help pay their sport costs.

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