It was a tough loss Saturday at the Hays Recreation Commission for the La Crosse Outlaws. The sixth-grade boys' team had led for much of the game, but in the final minutes, the Victoria team took the lead and won, 21-19.
It wasn’t for lack of trying by all the team members. Maybe especially so for Tristen Wilhelm.
Tristen was born with spina bifada — a condition in which the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly — and uses a wheelchair. But that hasn’t stopped him from being a typical, active boy.
“He’ll do anything that he can think of and more sometimes,” said his mom, Hilary Wilhelm.
La Crosse does not have a recreation commission, so last year, teams began competing in the HRC games. This is Tristen’s first year on the basketball team, but he’s been a football team manager with the same group of boys and even got to score a touchdown for the team.
That made him feel pretty good, he said, but he likes basketball better.
“I like that I really get to play,” he said.
Tristen starts each game and the second half, the tip-off going to another player, who passes Tristen the ball and pushes his chair down the court. Tristen calls the play, and the ball is passed to his team members.
But he’s not just a passive player. As his teammates dribble, pass and shoot, Tristen moves right into the action, blocking players and watching for his chance at a pass.
“There’s been some practices where he was down low on defense and he was just slapping the ball. He gets out there. He doesn’t hold anything back,” said Outlaws Coach Allen Morgan.
When he’s on the sidelines, Tristen keeps a close eye on the action, cheering and clapping for his teammates. In a huddle, he gets right in the group whether or not he’ll be on the court.
“Tristen never complains. He always has the best attitude on the team and you can tell all the kids revolve around that,” Morgan said. “They love playing with him. They loved when he’s on the court.”
In an early game this year, Morgan said, Tristen was making a pass to a teammate when an opposing player stole the ball.
“Everybody got mad, and we started playing really tough then,” he said.
“The kids are always so good with him and watching out for him. They’re very aware of where he’s at and what he’s doing,” Tristen’s mom said.
“Most teams I don’t think would put up with a kid in a wheelchair, but these group of kids, they’re awesome,” she said.
“It’s been really fun to watch them,” said Bailey Morgan, La Crosse. “The other teams have been so great about including him, and the sportsmanship of all the kids is really cool.”
“He doesn’t act like he’s any different than anybody else, and they don’t treat him any different, either. They don’t notice,” Hilary Wilhelm said.