Basketball one of several Turnstone teams competing on national level

April 12th, 2018

By Blake Sebring | News-Sentinel

The first time Bob Walda was asked to consider taking over as coach of the Turnstone Flyers prep wheelchair basketball team, he turned it down. Though he had coached New Haven Middle School and High School teams for 33 years, Walda wasn’t sure he was good enough.

“I showed up and I watched for a little bit and I told my brother I didn’t think it was going to work,” said Walda, 71. “I didn’t think I knew enough about this. Then I went home and started reading about John Wooden’s high post offense and thought to myself, `I think these kids will do this.’ I don’t know what happened from then on. I think God had a plan.”

It was a pretty good one. During his first year as head coach in 2012-13, the team won the conference title. This year, the Flyers are 19-5 and ranked No. 8 heading into the national championships this week in Louisville. Five of the nine players recently earned all-conference academic honors.

The sports teams have evolved into a sort of marketing tool for Turnstone. The power soccer, wheelchair basketball and sled hockey teams are all nationally ranked and regularly compete for national titles. It may seem a little odd to consider kids who walk with a limp or use wheelchairs as nationally competitive athletes, but playing sports represents freedom to them, and competition means they can be free and forget about their challenges for a while. Sometimes the people with the least-competitive bodies become the fiercest competitors when given the chance.

The prep basketball team consists of nine players ages 8 to 13. They have won their games by an average of 17 points per game, and their only losses have been to the top two teams in the country, teams from Minneapolis and Chicago. The squad finished 13th last year at nationals, and the highest they finished was second in 2004.

Each player has a unique story of how they came to be on the team.

Zach Pfenning was born in China with spina bifida and lost his lower left leg to an amputation, but he was also adopted by Mark and Lisa Pfenning of Ligonier who have adopted four children from China. The children started coming to Turnstone nine years ago for therapy and became track starts, each earning a handful of medals and setting national records.

Two months ago, Pfenning came to track practice (which Walda also coaches), and complained his prosthetic leg was bothering him so he couldn’t run. That’s OK, Walda said, let’s put you in a wheelchair and you can try basketball today.

“I liked it,” Zach said. He’s pretty sure basketball is now his favorite sport and begs his grandparents to bring him to practice when no one else can get free.

It’s remarkable how far he has improved in two months.

“In one sitting he convinced Zach,” Walda said. “I think they should try everything. I tell that to my middle school students, `You need to try stuff.’ ”

Ignace Fernandes is 15 and he’s too old to play on the prep team, so he plays on the high school squad. He was born with spina bifida, but he’s got amazingly quick hands and he’s a sharp passer — the perfect point guard to run a team.

“I’m trying to work on being a good team leader,” Fernandes said. “I want to help make other players better.”

What Fernandes really wants to do is eventually become a coach, and Walda is trying to nurture that drive.

“He’s really good at drawing up plays, and if you put together a play he studies it,” Walda said. “If he becomes a coach that would make me really happy. He working at it, studying it and someday I hope to see him out there doing it. He’s a really sharp kid.”

Everybody has a story, one they aren’t finished telling yet in an area most people never dreamed they’d have an opportunity to explore. They are also getting better almost every week. As Walda said, they are all outstanding in their own way and are great kids.

“They are always battling something,” Walda said. “These kids are always going through some kind of situation and they are tough, they are fighters who find a way through it, so when they come out there, they are not hard to coach. They’ll do exactly what you ask them to do.

Sounds just like their coach.

“They are just fun to be around,” he said. “They have a good sense of humor, but their work ethic is just off the charts. It’s been as much of a journey for me as it has been for these students, and I love it. I thank God for them every day.”