Jan. 31, 2000

by Alan Wasielewski

There have been so many stories written about walk-on athletes. An athlete tries out for a team and ends up working hard everyday with little or no reward. That might be the public’s perception of the life of a walk-on, but do not try to tell those non-scholarship players on the Notre Dame basketball team that they do not get rewarded for their behind-the-scenes work.

They are the ‘Gold Team’ in practice. Aaron Bannister, Tony Carney, Hunt Hanover, John Hiltz and Charles Thomas get to be UConn, St. John’s, and Syracuse for a day. The Gold Team will get together off in a gym away from the regular players (the ‘Blue Team’), learn how to run the other team offenses and defenses, then go to battle with the scholarship players.

“We just try to make the ‘Blue’ team work as hard as possible,” Thomas, who hails from Flint, Mich., said. “I figure if we work hard, if we foul them hard, they might as well get accustomed to it because that is what the other team is going to do anyway.”

“Our reward comes from seeing the team go out and perform well because we helped prepare them,” Hiltz explained. “Sometimes you can see a specific aspect, a pick we worked on in practice, that gets played well in the game. That is great to see.”

While all the walk-ons have different motivations behind coming to Notre Dame, they all have the bond of basketball. Working through weeks of tryouts, not knowing if you are on the team or off, not knowing if you will be in uniform or not, makes them realize they are living a special part of the college experience.

“I didn’t really know much about Notre Dame,” Hanover said. “I knew it was a Catholic school and had a good football team. I’m a junior, I tried out for two years and got cut. I figured why not give it a try one more year. It turned out to be far more than I expected.”

Hiltz, who is from Fort Mitchell, Ken., and Carney, from Rockford, Ill., are both from Notre Dame families who are living a dream by suiting up for the Irish.

“My dad went to school here,” Hiltz said. “I have pictures of me in a Notre Dame basketball jersey when I was little. I grew up with Notre Dame. This is something I have wanted to do since I was two years old.”

“Both my parents went to Notre Dame,” Carney added. “I knew I was going to come here academically, but it was just a matter of whether I should try-out or not. I said, ‘Why not? What can it hurt?’ and here I am today.”

They all became part of the team when head coach Matt Doherty met with them at the end of the exhibition season and laid out the expectations he had for his non-scholarship players.

“After the Marathon Oil game, Coach called us in for a meeting and explained the situation and what he wanted out of all of us,” Hiltz said. “We all agreed to everything without hesitation. Who would turn down this opportunity?”

It was also a chance for some players to be part of the team they had tried out for unsuccessfully a few times. “I was excited,” Hanover said. “The last two years, they never took anyone from the actual walk-on tryouts. I hoped that Coach Doherty would give us a chance, and he did.”

The walk-ons work out a schedule between each other on who dresses for certain games. Thomas suits up for all the Irish games, but the others rotate on the basis of who has family in town or other factors. Banister received his first taste of sitting on the Irish bench January 29, against St. John’s.

“It was so exciting,” Banister said. “It is nice to be out there and be seen as part of the team.” Hanover, Hiltz, Thomas and Carney were all in uniform when the Irish went through the mid-semester break contests against St. Peter’s, Loyola-Marymount and Elon. With the Irish winning each game comfortably, the call was made to the end of the bench and each player stepped onto the court for the Irish in a regular-season game.

“When Coach first came down the bench and told us to go in,” Hiltz said. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘You mean us?'” “You walk across more than just a line when you step on the court,” Hanover explained. “You see all the people and then they all get behind you and want you to do well.”

Hiltz definitely made the most of his first opportunity to play for the Irish. In the Elon game on December 28, for the final three minutes, Hiltz scored six points, grabbed two rebounds, and blocked a shot to the delight of the Irish fans. Carney also used the opportunity to score his first career points for the Irish with a short jump shot.

“The best time is when we went out there for three minutes and Coach called a timeout,” Thomas said. “We got to sit in the chairs, the five main chairs the regular players sit in. Coach wrote up a play, I think it was for a press offense, but the play was unimportant. He was talking to us.”

All three players also received minutes in the next two games against St. Peter’s and Loyola-Marymount, when Thomas scored his first career points for the Irish as well. Hanover and Thomas also had an opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden against Arizona when the Irish lost to the Wildcats in the Preseason NIT semifinals.

The opportunity to play in the games is a great reward for the athletes, but they also take great pride in themselves and the team no matter how much playing time they may receive.

“We do a lot together as a group,” Hiltz said. “There are days when we all pull together. When one of us isn’t playing well, we pick each other up. I think we know our role on the team and try accomplish it together. Our contribution is in practice. We are responsible for getting the team ready to play the next game. It is fun to see the result when they win a big game we prepared them for.”

The group is also quick to give a lot of credit to their improvement as players to the other two members of the Irish team not in the regular rotation. Former walk-on Skylard Owens and Ryan Humphrey – who transferred and must sit out a year but practices with the team. “We need to say something about Ryan Humphrey and Sky Owens,” Hiltz said. “They rotate through the Gold Team we play on in practice. Their leadership is crucial. Ryan is a guy that when he talks, we are going to listen because he has been to the Sweet 16 and was all-conference in the Big 12. We have benefited immensely by being around him.”

“Ryan and Sky are like my big brothers on the team,” Thomas said. “Whenever I get down, they tell me I can do it and do not let me get on myself too much.”

This group of athletes takes great pride in what they contribute to the Notre Dame basketball team. Hearing them talk about how important their role on the team is convinces the listener that Doherty made the right choice in allowing Banister, Carney, Hanover, Hiltz and Thomas to be part of the 1999-2000 Fighting Irish.

“It is a neat experience,” Hanover said. “No matter what happens out there you will never forget it. Your out there and your playing for Notre Dame. Everyday I put on a practice jersey, I feel like I am suiting up for a real game. I take great pride in putting on that jersey.”

“The opportunity we have is great,” Hiltz said. “I can’t thank Coach enough for the opportunity we have been given.”