Cottonwood High graduate spends month in Europe playing world class wheelchair basketball
Sep 17, 2018 02:23PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Ali Ibanez (L) and several teammates surround their opponent during the Women’s World Wheelchair Basketball Championship tournament in Hamburg, Germany. (www.rolli-pictures.de)
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Four months ago, she received her Cottonwood High School diploma. Now, she is a freshman at the University of Illinois.
And in between, Ali Ibanez spent an entire month in Europe – with three family members tagging along – competing for the U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball team – the team she hopes to earn a spot on for the next two years, to take her to the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“This was my first time actually leaving the country,” Ibanez said. “My mother also went, with my sweet younger sister, Brooke and my grandpa. I think they enjoyed their trip. They met me in the Netherlands for the ‘Dutch Battle’ (basketball tournament) and then toured some of Europe’s must-see cities, before joining me again in Hamburg, Germany for the World Championships. It was super fun to have them there to support me and the team.”
Several months ago, the City Journals introduced readers to Ali as she was trying out for the Women’s Wheelchair National Team. At only 18 years old, she was one of the youngest players trying to make the squad. But she did have several years of wheelchair basketball experience, playing for her local Rush team, under head coach Marilyn Blakley.
“We’ve had some really good players come through our program and Ali was certainly one of the best,” Blakley said. “She is the very first male or female player we have ever had who made a national wheelchair team. I’m so proud of her.”
After nine years as the Rush head coach, this summer Blakley turned the reins over to former assistant coach Adam Lindsay, also a member in good standing in the Ali Ibanez fan club.
“Ali was with our team five years, sometimes playing on more than one team at a time,” he said. “I followed her play (at the World Championship tournament) in Germany. She got a lot of minutes and played great. The sky is the limit for her, which is wonderful, because she is a pretty neat little gal.”
Lindsay added, a determined and skilled wheelchair basketball player can earn a living in the sport, playing in Europe. But after spending a month there, Ali’s priorities are now firmly rooted back here in the states.
“At the moment I’m focusing strictly on my academics at the University of Illinois and playing for the (women’s wheelchair basketball) team here,” Ibanez said. “I’m planning on tryouts in January (to return to the U.S. national team), but am a bit concerned about how the training schedules and camps will affect my schooling and grades.”
The University of Illinois is one of the few schools across the country that fields wheelchair basketball teams. One of Ali’s assistant coaches there was her teammate on the U.S. national team, Kaitlyn Eaton. Practice for her collegiate season has already begun. Like traditional basketball seasons, play will run from November through March.
“I chose the University of Illinois because I felt (the coaches) would be able to help me become the best athlete I can be, through their incredible program,” Ali added. “I also know they are extremely dedicated to their student athletes. It should be a good environment for me.”
The U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National team earned the Paralympic gold medal two years ago, in Rio de Janeiro. Ibanez was not a member of that team.
However, in Amsterdam (for a warm-up, “friendly” tournament) and in Hamburg (for the world finals), the U.S. women were only average. They split their eight games in Germany (4 wins, 4 losses) and placed sixth in the tournament. Still, head coach Trooper Johnson was pleased with the team and with Ali’s play.
“Our focus right now is leading into (the Paralympic Games in) Tokyo in 2020, so our goal was to develop younger athletes,” Johnson said. “(Ali) was one of our huge surprises – such a big asset to the team. She has such incredible potential and is so coachable. Anything I ask her to do, she does it. She’s an amazing athlete and a joy to coach. I can’t wait to have her back.”
Ali’s mom, Tiffanie Ibanez, is equally proud of what her daughter accomplished in Europe.
“The games were pretty intense – a higher level of play than what Ali had here,” her mom said. “I was amazed they started her. She was awesome defensively. I was so glad to get over there to watch her, along with my dad and daughter Brooke.”
Ali started nearly every game at point guard. She said her role was not to score but to set up teammates for good shots. Now she just hopes her college schedule will allow her to do it all over again for the national team next year…and for the Paralympic team, the year after that.