published Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Walk-ons step up: SoCon has several in key roles

Redshirt freshman Trey Sumler is Western Carolina's second-leading scorer.

Redshirt senior Darryl Evans has started all 24 games this year for Furman.

Sophomore Zuri James started eight straight games for Georgia Southern, and sophomore Nathan Healy is seventh in minutes for Appalachian State.

Redshirt sophomore Dontay Hampton played in the final minutes of four nail-biting victories for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, whose best post defender is injured walk-on sophomore Sam Watson.

All of them began their college basketball careers as walk-ons.

They were afterthoughts of recruiters who didn't think they were worthy of scholarships to Division I mid-major programs until Southern Conference coaches accepted them.

"There are kids all over the country with a dream to play college basketball," Appalachian State coach Jason Capel said. "With such little room for error with scholarships, some kids will fall through the cracks. They have a chip on their shoulder to prove people wrong.

"When those kids get an opportunity and take advantage of it, they can be your best players."

Each of the six players mentioned above arrived on campus like a young singer/songwriter to Nashville — with few promises, a limited opportunity but an abundance of determination.

They also are similar in that they had faith in their abilities and they now play significant roles for their respective teams.

"You can never measure a kid's heart," UTC coach John Shulman said. "If a kid wants to be a great player, then he's allowed to be whatever he wants to be."

Sumler was told he'd get a scholarship after redshirting his freshman year. Evans earned a scholarship after sitting out his first season. Healy, James, Hampton and Watson are still paying their own ways.

"The one constant that you'll find in walk-ons is that they're intelligent and can grasp a game plan and the concept," Georgia Southern coach Charlton Young said. "A lot of kids at this level made it on talent."

Sumler, who will face Shulman's Mocs on Saturday in a battle of the top two SoCon North Division teams, slipped past the eyes of mid-major recruiters. His only options were Division II schools until WCU coaches saw him. But they didn't have a scholarship for his first season.

"It was kind of rough because I always felt I should have been recruited higher," Sumler said. "We don't look at it as being a walk-on. We see it as an opportunity to get better and then apply what we learned."

Evans, a Furman guard, also eluded recruiters but never had the promise of a scholarship. He earned his with on-the-job effort at practice against scholarship players.

"At the end of my freshman year, they called me in and said they wanted to give me a scholarship," Evans said. "Before, I didn't know what the meeting was about. Then [coach Jeff Jackson] told me, and it was a crazy feeling."

James slipped through the eyes of even more recruiters. He played some basketball at Tallahassee Community College and then transferred to Georgia Southern — the school, not the basketball program.

GSU coach Charlton Young came up against James a few times during pickup games at the campus rec center. Young asked James to try out for a walk-on spot last year. Young cut him before last season, but James wanted to wear a jersey and asked how to improve over a year.

They played in pickup games this past fall and Young again asked James to try out. Young kept him.

"That first time he asked what he had to work on," Young said. "Then he tried out this year and I felt he got better and he was working at it. Lo and behold, he worked his way up."

So have other SoCon walk-ons.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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