GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan is welcoming back its own national basketball champions.
The Mary Free Bed Junior Pacers, which is made up of teens from West Michigan, won the National Wheelchair Basketball Association‘s Junior Division Varsity Championship. The victory came Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky.
It’s big accomplishment for the local team, which started as the underdog and made it to the top.
“I was excited, but it didn’t set in until later that this is what we’d waited 11 years to do,” player Natalie Wright, who has been on the team for 11 years, told 24 Hour News 8 on Tuesday.
The Pacers lost the championship game in the last four seasons and they weren’t favored to win this year, either.
“If there was something that could have gone wrong this season, it did,” Wright said.
“The whole season we never were able to show up with a full lineup,” added center Tanner Gentry, who has been on the team for 10 years. “We never really showed what true Pacer basketball was.”
That is, until the tournament — but even then, the Pacers only had seven players while other teams had about 10 or more.
“We were doubted by a lot of people,” said player Gabe DenBraber, who has been playing for four seasons.
The Pacers let their “haters” be their motivators.
“We like that, that no one really believed in us and our team,” DenBraber said. “So that just fueled us even more to want to win a championship.”
Then the team learned that they would be down a player. One of their teammates doesn’t play on Sundays for religious reasons.
“He still vowed that he was not going to do it,” Gentry said.
The players respected his decision. Then, seconds before warmups, after the player learned about a problem a teammate was going through off the court, he decided to play.
“He did it for the team, instead of for himself,” Wright said.
Working together, the Pacers won. It’s a feeling they will never forget, shared with teammates they call family.
Wright and Gentry will being playing at the college level next year. DenBraber will be playing his final season with the Pacers next year. All three won individual tournament awards. Gentry won the Most Valuable Player award.