December 21, 1998
by Peggy Curtin
At this time last year, Dennis Carroll was more concerned with his forehand than his jumpshot. That’s because the senior from La Grange, Ill., was a member of the Notre Dame tennis team and not the basketball team.
After two years playing basketball as a walk-on with limited playing time, Carroll decided to try tennis, a sport he played at Lyons Township High School, where he earned all-state honors three times.
“I talked with Coach MacLeod, and all that I had been through as a walk on, it really wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be,” Carroll said. “Talking with coach, I knew my role probably wasn’t going to expand much at that time. He didn’t want me to quit, but he said do what you want to do, so after a discussion with my parents I decided maybe I’d be happier doing something else.”
Doing something else had always been in Carroll’s mind since he graduated from high school in 1995. As a three-sport athlete in basketball, tennis and football, he wasn’t sure exactly which sport he wanted to play in college.
“It was kind of a nice thing, but also a troublesome thing in that I didn’t know what I wanted to play,” Carroll said. “I knew that I wanted to play a college sport, but I didn’t know what sport and that probably turned some coaches away from recruiting me, especially since they didn’t even know if I was going to play their sport.”
The sport Carroll finally chose was basketball. After averaging 18 points per game and garnering all-state, all-area and all-conference honors as a senior, he decided to come to Notre Dame both for the academics and the opportunity to play basketball.
“He was pretty well thought of as a basketball player prior to coming to Notre Dame,” said MacLeod of Carroll.
Coming to Notre Dame, however, also meant that he would have to walk-onto the basketball team. In his first season, he played 14 minutes and scored six points, four of which came in six minutes of actions against Loyola Marymount. The next year Carroll played in five games, logging nine total minutes, and going 3-for-4 from the free-throw line.
After the two seasons playing basketball, however, the competitor in him yearned for something more. Following the discussion with Coach MacLeod about his future role on the team, Carroll called Notre Dame tennis coach Bobby Bayliss and made the tennis team.
“The tennis team is a lot more of a team than people realize,” Carroll said. “The matches are like duals, and all the players are pulling for each other. I was really surprised and happy that all the guys were happy for each other.”
While Carroll was happy on the tennis team, he got a call from the basketball coaching staff during finals last spring about the possibility of returning to the team in a new role.
“I really had no intention of coming back to basketball,” said Carroll, who is now on scholarship. “Once I decided to quit, in my mind, that was it and I wasn’t going to look back. I had a great time on the tennis team, but then during finals I got a call from Coach (Fran) McCaffrey that Coach MacLeod wanted to talk to me. When I talked to (MacLeod), he said that they would really like to have me back.
“The situation was really nice because I didn’t think that it was ever going to present itself again. It is one in which I thought I was going to play and have the opportunity to play, which is what I had always wanted. Now that I was going to be able to play basketball, I jumped on the opportunity.”
“We called and asked him if he wanted to play basketball again, and he said yes,” MacLeod said describing the situation. “We worked it out and he’s been tremendous. It’s good to have him back on the floor.”
Following the year break, Carroll is playing a different role on a different team than the one he left.
“There’s a noticeable difference in the players,” Carroll says. “All the guys that were there when I was on the team like Phil (Hickey), Antoni (Wyche) and Paul (Rainey) are all just remarkably better. To come back where all of us are in a leadership role, it’s just a lot different perspective than when you’re a freshman or sophomore, particularly when you’re a walk on. Being one of the captains, you’re really trying to make this team work. It was kind of like coming on to a whole new team for me.”
Part of Carroll’s new role on the team is coming off the bench to play either as a shooting guard or as a small forward, which means playing good defense and being able to shoot the ball. So far this season, he has played in seven of the nine games, averaging 7.5 minutes per game and shooting 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc.
“My role is to come in and play as hard as I can defensively and shoot the ball when I’m in there,” Carroll says. “I just play as hard as I can and never let up. I go after loose balls on the defensive end, and on the offensive end, I think people have to respect me as a pretty good shooter.”
One of the hardest parts of Carroll’s role is being able to come off the bench and make an immediate impact in the minutes that he has.
“When you’re coming off the bench cold, your shot may or may not be there,” Carroll says. “But if you play as hard as you can defensively, you’re going to earn your minutes. It’s a different mindset, thinking, ‘all right I’m not going to let my guy score,” and if I get some opportunities I’m going to shoot.”
Described by MacLeod as a solid player who has a good feel for the game, tremendous confidence and a salty competitiveness, Carroll, as one of the team’s four seniors and team captains, also serves a mentor-type role to some of the younger players on the squad.
“I think the kids look up to him,” MacLeod says. “They didn’t know much about him, but he’s ready to play everyday. I think they have respect for his work habits and the way he approaches things.”
The way he approaches things probably came in part from his family. The fourth of six children, Carroll has three sisters and two brothers, three of whom played or play a sport in college. One of his older sisters, Sheila, played volleyball at DePaul, his older brother, Johnny, competed for Xavier (Ohio) in basketball, and his younger sister, Noreen, currently plays for the Syracuse volleyball team.
“I loved growing up with a big family,” Carroll says. “There was always people around. We always pushed each other. I’m close to all of them, but between my two brothers and I, we have a nice competitiveness, which has helped in all our careers.”
Behind his five siblings are his parents Mollie and John who, despite his family’s athletic prowess, did not compete in sports at the collegiate level.
“My parents were great in that they never pushed us,” Carroll says. “They let us play like 12 sports when we were younger. It was just something we all liked to do and individually, we all tried hard to succeed.”
After this basketball season, Carroll doesn’t see sports becoming any less of a part of his life.
“My mom always used to say that I always needed physical activity during the day or I was a crab,” Carroll says jokingly. “So I think it’s exercise in general that I like and then of course there’s the competition. I joke with my roommates all the time that after the season, I’m not going to do anything, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing sports as long as I’m physically able to. I’ll always be in leagues or goofing around with friends playing sports.”