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Kicking and Rolling: Power Wheelchair Team Creates Play Opportunity

Upper Valley Power Soccer players Jamie Lowery, of Wilder, left, and C.J. Lanzim of Plainfield at the The Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2013. 
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Upper Valley Power Soccer players Jamie Lowery, of Wilder, left, and C.J. Lanzim of Plainfield at the The Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

Lebanon — Dartmouth College juniors Michaela Conway and Allie Brouckman both play in the second row for the Big Green women’s rugby team. In their spare time, they help others have a front-row seat to their own sport — while playing it.

For the second straight year, Conway and Brouckman are co-coaching the Upper Valley Wheelers, the area’s first power chair soccer team. One of the fastest-growing sports for athletes in electric wheelchairs, the 4-on-4 game is played with a 13-inch ball on indoor basketball courts and allows players to use their chairs for a whole new purpose — scoring goals and playing defense. During practices and games, each chair dons a plastic guard to help with dribbling and shooting.

Rules are similar to able-bodied soccer, with fouls, penalty shots, even yellow and red cards.

“I wasn’t a huge soccer fan before this,” said C.J. Lanzim, 31, who has spina bifida and is of three returning players on the Wheelers. “A year ago, you probably wouldn’t have caught me watching soccer, but I appreciate the game much more now.”

The Wheelers, who practice every Sunday from 1-3 p.m. at the Carter Community Building Association’s Witherell Center, are one of several New Hampshire-based teams and have a three-match schedule on the docket. They’ll host two of them at CCBA, beginning Nov. 2 when the Durham-based Northeast Passage Power Cats visit.

The Power Cats practice and play home matches at the University of New Hampshire, a nearly 200-mile round trip that Kim Estes used to make every weekend so that her daughter, Samantha, could play.

“It was a long trip to make every week, but (power chair soccer) is one sport I could find for her where she could play independently,” said Estes, of Hanover. “It’s just amazing to watch them using all of their own muscles and skills.”

Receiving the CCBA’s blessing to use the Witherell Center courts, Estes reached out to Conway, whom she’d met at a recreation and therapy camp for Sam the previous summer. Conway reached out to Brouckman, and the pair has been thrilled to help the team develop.

“I thought it was a great idea as soon as I heard about it,” said Brouckman. “I’ve been on sports teams for most of my life, and I know how valuable it is. It’s been really great to work with them. They’re so dedicated.”

The Wheelers have a team of four — Lanzim and Sam Estes, plus Wilder resident Jamie Lowrey, 27, and first-grader Sofia Hancock, of Hanover. Hancock began practicing with the team on Oct. 6 and has caught on quickly.

“There are certainly no age restrictions; it’s very inclusive,” said Conway. “Sofia did a great job the other day and is only going to get better.”

Conway and Brouckman sought primarily last season to teach players to be comfortable with the game and to have fun. This year, they hope to make competitive strides.

“I feel like we have a foundation built,” Conway said. “For the three who’ve come back, they’ve learned a lot about the game and become better players. So this year, for us, I feel like is about developing those skills.”

Practices focus heavily on dribbling and passing, essential to maintaining possession. Friends off the court, Lanzim and Lowrey have developed strong chemistry and aim to set each other up for scores. A clean shot is executed by spinning the chair so that the guard attached the front whacks the ball.

“There were times last winter when they were the only two at practice. They’re very dedicated,” said Conway. “They go in for shots together; they’ll send it right across to each other. They’re aggressive and the leaders on our team. Sam is very aggressive, too.”

Brouckman said coaching the Wheelers has helped her become a better rugby player. Dartmouth is now 6-0 after a 7-5 home win over Brown on Saturday.

“Any time you’re preparing for games and looking at a field spatially, it’s going to help you as an athlete, overall,” she said. “I think what we’re doing (with the Wheelers) is definitely helping both of us.”

Devising schemes and drills has helped Conway empathise with Dartmouth coach Debra Archambault.

“Having to come up with drills and things that you think will help everyone get better, it’s definitely given me a better idea of what (Archambault) must go through,” she said.

The Northeast Passage is the only Granite State team to be certified by the United States Power Chair Soccer Association, which every year sanctions regional and national tournaments and every four years selects players for Team USA ato participate in a World Cup event. The Burlington-based Vermont Chargers are the only other certified team in the Twin States. There are four in the Boston area.

Estes hopes the Wheelers will be certified by the start of next season. In the meantime, she’d like to see a higher turnout at practices.

“It’s really an awesome sport,” she said. “It’s so engaging for the players. Anyone who tries it is going to love it.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.