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By Sandy Brundage | Almanac Staff Writer
The squeal of metal against metal, the smack of rubber against flesh: Murder was in the air as Kentucky hosted the national tournament of wheelchair rugby -- dubbed "murderball" -- on March 21.
Visitors to Menlo Park's Riekes Center would have recognized some of the faces mixing it up with the best of the best on the Louisville court. The nonprofit center provides workout facilities and helps raise funds for the "NorCal Quakes," which qualified for Nationals for the first time in about 10 years. The team finished the season with 28 wins and seven losses.
"It gives me a little credibility, don't it?" said Coach Reggie Richner, who came off the retirement bench to assist the Quakes. He'd made "a tough decision" to stop coaching after seeing the American rugby team through to victory in the 2000 Paralympics, and stayed out of the game until a neighbor coaxed him back into action this season.
The team took fourth place in its division at Nationals -- a solid performance that, nonetheless, left some disappointed. Coach Richner is already fired up for when the next season opens in September. "I'm very proud of the guys. Being among the best of the best got to us a little bit, maybe I didn't prepare them well enough for that," he said. The team, with some players injured and sick, wasn't at full strength on the Kentucky proving grounds. "Not to make excuses. I've got to come back and redeem myself too. Next year will be better."
The United States Quad Rugby Association's rules seem simple enough: Score points by ferrying a ball across the opposition's goal line on a regulation-size hardwood basketball court. All with some degree of quadriplegia, players are rated from 0.5 (limited use of arms and hands) to 3.5 (much greater use). Each coed team fields four members at a time, and their combined rating can't exceed 8.0. The team with the most points at the end of four eight-minute quarters wins.
Those rules translate into the action that earned the sport its murderous nickname: Think of a fast-moving mix of basketball and football, with a dash of demolition derby. Think jousting, with manually powered wheelchairs.
"It's a full-contact sport. The chairs are built so you can smash into them over and over and over again," said team co-captain Grayson Holden.
Although the trip to Nationals was the first for this particular group of players, some have played for years after discovering the "competitive world inside of disability," as Mr. Holden put it. Recruited by a neighbor after finishing architecture school, he started five years ago.
"It's a time to change your brain," he said. "You don't have to think about anything beyond playing the game."
Others, like Brian Sperle, were fresh out of rehabilitation. Mr. Sperle hadn't been on a plane since his injury before the trip to Nationals.
"He was told not to play last year. They try to keep you out of that (kind of activity) for at least six to eight months, but Brian wasn't having any of that," Coach Richner said. "He worked out every day. He's just awesome. For somebody to compete at that high a level within a year out of rehab -- it's incredible. It just doesn't happen like that."
The team welcomes new members of any ability level, Coach Richner said. Practice takes place two to three times a week. Maybe the biceps or triceps muscles no longer work, but players learn to maximize what they do have.
"They might see somebody who has less function than they do, but doing way more, and they want to know how. Give them two minutes with another quad, and they learn so much more than at occupational therapy."
While it is a no-holds-barred sport, the heart of quad rugby lies under the surface, according to the coach. "A lot of these guys work, they've got school or whatever. The beauty of it is that it's not about the sport, but about getting people back into mainstream society, and helping people realize they can have opportunities."
Just don't expect Coach Richner to go easy.
"The coach is never happy," he said, laughing, and then paused in a way that suggested he was mentally mapping out strategies for next season.
While the wheelchairs absorb most of the beating, hands do sometimes get caught in wheels, and heads do, once in a great while, smack the ground. The coach suggests finding a courtside seat if murderball sounds too intense to try.
"It's the best spectator sport there is. If you want to just sit down and watch a sport for the fun of it, you can't beat wheelchair rugby."
He would know. When the sport debuted as a medal event at the 2000 Paralympics, the U.S. team edged out Australia 32-31 for the gold in front of a sold-out crowd.
The NorCal Quakes
Grayson Holden (co-captain)
Reggie Richner (coach)
Steven Toyoji (co-captain)
2013-14 season statistics
Las Vegas: 1st place, 5 wins, 0 losses
Best of the West in San Diego: 4th place, 2 wins, 3 losses
Boise: 1st place, 5 wins, 0 losses
Sacramento: 1st place, 5 wins, 0 losses
University of Arizona: 1st place, 5 wins, 0 losses
Sectionals (Seattle, WA): 2nd place, 4 wins, 1 loss
Nationals (Louisville, KY): 4th place, 2 wins, 3 losses
Overall record: 28 wins, 7 losses