Kenzie Haag didn’t immediately hit it off with organized sports.
Haag, who signed with the University of Arizona’s wheelchair basketball team this month, “never clicked” with adaptive soccer. During her T-ball days, she was happier playing with dogs on the sidelines than she was in the field.
When she was first introduced to basketball around age 7 or 8, Haag, now 18, knew this sport was different.
“Basketball was the first sport that I felt very passionate about, and that I really wanted to continue to pursue past a younger age,” Haag said during an interview at New Tech Academy.
But even then, she wasn’t entirely comfortable.
“For the longest time I didn’t want to touch the ball. I didn’t want the ball anywhere near me, I didn’t want it in my hand,” Haag said.
Haag said her transformation has come since graduating to the Turnstone Flyers varsity team, which is open to athletes ages 13 through the end of high school. That change was largely because of coach, Molly Welfle.
“She was the epitome of who I wanted to be as a player,” Haag said of Welfle, a former Turnstone player who went on to play for the University of Texas at Arlington and the women’s national wheelchair basketball team.
Haag describes Welfle as “the coolest person I had ever met,” and she also challenged Kenzie to expand her game.
“She would push me and say ‘No, you are going to take this ball down the court, because you can do it. You are more capable than you are ever going to allow yourself to see,’ ” Haag said. “And it wasn’t until she pushed me to understand that that I realized I am capable of so much more. And you know what, I’m pretty good at what I do.”
As a younger player, Haag was constantly shadowing her brother Alex, who is just 17 months older and usually on the same team. But that didn’t mean they always got along.
“There was times when the two of them would be literally fighting at half court, and I would have to say to the coach, ‘You need to pull one of them, or I am going to, because this is embarrassing,’ ” said their mom, Tina Grow.
Kenzie and Alex agree their relationship changed when they realized their familiarity could be a huge advantage for their team.
“As soon as we realized we can be this strong power duo, me and her, it was like a snap of the fingers,” Alex said. “And I think it helped our bonding, even off the court. If I’m not feeling the best that day, I can lean on her.”
Kenzie describes wheelchair basketball as “gritty and dirty,” arguably more intense than standing basketball. Her mother says that may be part of what Kenzie enjoys so much about it.
“I think when we would bring people in who had never seen the game before, it was like, ‘Oh, how cute, little wheelchair basketball players,’ ” Grow said. “And then they’re out there, and it’s more like rugby meets basketball, they’re flipping and they’re flying down the court, and it was that, ‘Yeah, I’m actually a bad ass, this is what you’re watching, and let me showcase that.’ ”
Just as Welfle pushed Kenzie to new heights on the court, she is also the one who led her to seriously consider playing in college.
“She was saying, based on the way I play and based on my personality, she thought UTA would be a really good fit for me,” Kenzie said. “After she had mentioned that, I wasn’t set on UTA at all. I obviously looked into it, but I think after looking into UTA, I realized that there were so many other opportunities out there as well.”
Kenzie said she settled on Arizona because of its athletics and well-regarded psychology program. She hopes to begin her career working in a psychiatric hospital, then pursuing a master’s in social work with the goal of improving the foster care system.
But before pursuing those professional goals, there’s lots of basketball to be played. Arizona offers the largest competitive adaptive athletics program in the country and has produced numerous Paralympians.
“I’m just really, really excited to connect with other players,” Kenzie said. “One of the other girls I just recently learned about, she actually has the same condition as us, and I had never met someone with the same condition, familial spastic paraplegia, and so that was really cool.
“Learning to better myself at the collegiate level is something I could have only imagined up to now. I’m excited to see how much more I can learn, how much more I can grow in my next four years of college.”
Grow said it’s been exciting for Kenzie’s family to watch her grow from the girl who was afraid to touch the ball to a leader.
Grow added that the Arizona coach told her she not only saw how Kenzie played on the court but how she helped “other players be where they need to be.”
“I think that was really important to Kenzie,” her mother said. “She’s worked on her shot, she’s worked on all of those physical aspects, but being that glue that holds the team together. That does carry over in every aspect of her life.
“It’s going to be really hard for us when she leaves. She’s pretty amazing.”