Racket rivalry

Auburn wheelchair tennis team to battle Alabama for national championship on Saturday

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Jake Eastwood, Evan Heller and Gabe Puthoff had dreams of competing for championships when they chose to attend Auburn University, and those aspirations will become a reality Saturday when they take on the University of Alabama with a national title on the line.

The trio of Tigers will square off against Auburn’s fiercest rival in the collegiate wheelchair tennis championship on Saturday afternoon at the USTA National Campus in Orlando with a team crown up for grabs. Held in conjunction with the NCAA Division I, II and III Championships, the wheelchair tennis championship will feature two singles matches and one doubles match to decide the 2023 champion.

“Playing for a championship is always the goal,” said Eastwood, a junior majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts who hails from Mill Creek, Washington. “It’s definitely a cool opportunity to represent the university at a high level.”

Eastwood was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, at the age of 12 and had to have his left leg amputated the following year. The 20-year-old began playing adaptive sports during his teenage years and followed an uncle and cousins to the Plains and has enjoyed his time in Auburn from the beginning.

“You definitely feel the Auburn Family atmosphere when you come here,” said Eastwood, who played on Team USA’s Under-23 wheelchair basketball team last year. “Once you get down here, start applying yourself and taking classes, you definitely feel it. You can see how Auburn alums support all of the programs here, especially the adaptive sports, and it’s super cool to see what the Auburn Family is like.”

For Heller — a senior majoring in special education in the College of Education — the chance to represent Auburn as a student-athlete on a grand stage and the chance to win a national championship are opportunities he doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s unbelievable, and there’s not really many words to describe it,” Heller, a Wooster, Ohio, native, said of playing Alabama for a national title. “I would never think we’d be in the tennis championship, and so just to be in this position is unbelievable. I’m just excited to go out there and compete for me, for my school, for my family and for everybody.”

Puthoff — a senior majoring in education in the College of Education — transferred to Auburn from the University of Dayton near his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Born with the neural tube defect known as spina bifida, Puthoff relishes the chance to compete at a high level in multiple adaptive sports while wearing the orange and blue.

“We’ve made great strides, and we’re moving along nicely,” said Puthoff, who hopes to work as a teacher and coach wheelchair basketball after graduation. “It’s crazy, and I never really thought of playing in a Final Four or for a national championship. This has exceeded expectations, and I really think the Auburn Family is embracing us.

“It’s a dream come true, and the first time I stepped on campus, I felt like I was family.”

All three tennis players also compete on the wheelchair basketball team, and their athletic achievements and opportunities help provide a well-rounded college experience. Their experiences on the Plains will forge memories they carry forever.

“I’m part of something bigger than myself, and I’m proud of where this program is going,” said Heller, who was born with spina bifida and had heart surgery when he was just 4 months old. “Everybody sees us as athletes. I’m always wearing an Auburn wheelchair basketball or wheelchair tennis shirt, and people are always saying, ‘War Eagle.’ So, it’s just great to be part of the Auburn Family. It means so much to me.”

“I’m just excited to go out there and compete for me, for my school, for my family and for everybody.”

—Evan Heller, senior, special education

“I never really thought of playing in a Final Four or for a national championship. This has exceeded expectations, and I really think the Auburn Family is embracing us.”

—Gabe Puthoff, senior, education

Auburn’s berth in the wheelchair tennis national championship match comes on the heels of the wheelchair basketball team’s Final Four appearance earlier this year under the guidance of Coach Robb Taylor. Nathan Waters, Auburn’s assistant director in the Office of Accessibility, coaches the tennis squad, which also received significant contributions from Jack Pierre and Sarah Kate Sligh this season en route to the title round.

The student-athletes’ recent accomplishments signify a growing wave of momentum for Auburn’s adaptive sports program, one that has received support from Tiger Giving Day. Taylor and Waters are committed to continuing to expand opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities in the future.

“The growth of adaptive sports on campus has been exponential from where we first started,” Waters said. “The Auburn Family has been incredible with donations, helping us with providing equipment and scholarships. Without them, a lot of this wouldn’t be possible.

“Players from all over the country are interested in coming to Auburn because of what we’ve built here and the reputation we have now.”

Saturday’s championship matches will be livestreamed live online, with Auburn and Alabama slated to begin play in the early afternoon.

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