University City

TarWheels roll toward title tournament

Playing for a national title doesn't come cheaply.

Carolina TarWheels officials figure it will cost the team about $8,000 to travel to this month's National Wheelchair Basketball Association Division III national championship tournament. For financial reasons, it's an opportunity the TarWheels have passed on before.

But this year is different. The Cabarrus County-based team was ranked No. 1 nationally at the time they had to decide whether to enter the tourney. Players thought they owed it to themselves and to the spirit of wheelchair basketball to challenge for their game's top prize.

Next week, Carolina will load its 15-passenger team van and equipment trailer and head to Colorado Springs, Colo., attempting to win its first championship since forming three years ago.

The TarWheels are led by Donnie Langford of Mount Pleasant, the team's founder and coach. At 54, he is also a sharp-shooting guard. He's an NWBA Hall of Famer and a 30-year veteran of the sport.

Langford played for a different Carolina TarWheels team in the 1980s. He later suited up for the Charlotte Rollin' Hornets and the Charlotte Rollin' Bobcats, each of which had an affiliation with its NBA counterpart. Langford won national championships with the Rollin' Hornets in 1996 and 1998.

Langford formed the TarWheels in 2009 as the first local program. They practice at J.N. Fries Middle School and play games at Academy Recreation Center and Westford United Methodist Church, all in Concord.

"It means everything as a coach," said Langford, "... to teach a bunch of guys the game and get them to compete for a championship."

In its first season, Carolina played as an independent and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country. The team plays in the NWBA's Division III, which is forplayers with less experience than the association's Championship Division.

In the 2010-11 season, the TarWheels joined the Carolina Wheelchair Basketball Conference, a 10-team league with squads from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. As it won the CWBC, Carolina's national ranking reached as high as No. 2.

In two CWBC seasons, the TarWheels have a perfect 40-0 record in the regular season. This year, Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country through mid-February. Then it suffered two losses - at an invitational tournament in Kentucky - and dropped to its current ranking, No. 4.

TarWheels players have received individual recognition as well. This season, Oakboro's Pete Morgan averaged 26 points per game and was named conference rookie of the year. Concord's David Hix received the honor last year.

Hix, 31, learned about the TarWheels from Langford's daughter, Jennifer Langford, who is the team's vice president and handles many administrative responsibilities. She and Hix worked at the same Charlotte nightclub where Hix was injured while trying to stop a mugging in 2007.

After multiple surgeries on his right foot and ankle, Hix elected to have the foot amputated last spring, shortly after his first season with the TarWheels. He credits wheelchair basketball for helping him trim 75 pounds off his overweight frame.

Still receiving worker's compensation from his work-related injury, Hix said it's a hardship for him to pay for the trip to nationals on his own. He and the other TarWheels are relying on team fundraising to offset the cost.

The TarWheels accept donations at all levels. They were scheduled to host a golf tournament on March 9 and have played benefit games against school faculties and church teams.

The TarWheels are going to Colorado to win, but Hix said it's possible to find some consolation if they don't.

"If we go out there and play the best we possibly can, then yeah," he said. "You can't ask for anything more than that."