December 27, 1998
by Peggy Curtin and Lisa Nelson
Notre Dame guards Tom Krizmanich and Matt MacLeod and forward Skylard Owens all come to the Irish with different backgrounds and different agendas. But the three walk-ons all share a common goal – to push the scholarship players and make Notre Dame a better basketball team. The three are doing just that as Notre Dame has won its last four games going over the .500 mark for the first time this season.
Krizmanich, a sophomore from Warsaw, Ind., had no doubt where he was going to college. His father’s backyard borders right up against the Notre Dame campus and the Irish spirit was ingrained in Krizmanich’s head from the day he was born. The Krizmanich family also has a long tradition with Notre Dame as his father, Tom Sr., and sister, Amy, graduated from Notre Dame.
“My family has pictures with me in Notre Dame jumpers and knit hats when I was two months old,” Krizmanich says. “There was never a question of where I was going to go to college.”
The questions for the 6-4 Krizmanich was whether he was going to play basketball or not. A good player at Warsaw High School, Krizmanich averaged 21 points per game with seven rebounds as a senior. He was named team captain and MVP his final campaign, as he earned all-conference honors and honorable mention all-state accolades. During his junior year, his team advanced to the state semifinals and won the conference championship all four years he played. He was recruited by some smaller schools, but he could not give up on his dream of attending Notre Dame.
“I really never even thought about playing basketball,” Krizmanich says. “I had offers from smaller colleges, but I never seriously considered them. I decided to give Coach MacLeod a call during the spring of my senior year of high school to see if I could walk on, and he said I was more than welcome to join the team.”
Krizmanich is in his second season as a walk-on for MacLeod and the Irish. His first year, he saw action in four games, playing a total of 5 minutes. He scored his first career points, a three-pointer, against Dartmouth. This season has been much of the same for Krizmanich as he has played in two games scoring his lone point, a free throw, against Stetson last Monday night.
So what drives Krizmanich through those long practices knowing that he does not get to travel much and is going to see most of the game from the bench?
“I do it to make the team better,” Krizmanich says. “I am always the scout team for the guys and I help prepare them for the opponents. It is my way of contributing to the program. I also like hanging out with the guys and keeping physically active. It is a stress reliever for me, especially when my studies get tough.”
Krizmanich hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps in more ways than just attending Notre Dame. He is currently a pre-med major with hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, just like his father.
Junior Matt MacLeod, literally, is following his dad’s footsteps on a daily basis as he shares the same basketball court with his father. Matt is in his second season as a walk-on for the Irish, which is coached by his dad, John MacLeod.
“It is a little different playing for my dad,” Matt says. “I really didn’t know what to expect coming in the first year. It was weird the first couple of weeks because I didn’t know if I should call him dad or coach. I try not to call him by name. When I have a question, I just ask him straight-out and try not to use a name.
“He does a good job keeping everything separate. When I go home, he’s not the coach, he’s my dad. When I am on the court, he is the coach. Really, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.”
MacLeod attended St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend where he played varsity basketball. After attending Notre Dame for a year as a student, he decided to walk-on the basketball team and play for his dad. The 6 foot-4 inch MacLeod has seen action in seven games during his career, including two this year. He has scored two points in his career, a bucket against Rutgers last year, but he knows that is not his role on the team.
“My job is to push the scholarship players hard in practice,” MacLeod says. “Maybe down the line I will get some more minutes. I especially need to work on my defense and my ball handling, but you always can get better in all aspects of the game. Just having the opportunity to play basketball at Notre Dame and for my dad is the key for me. If I get in the game, that is even a bigger plus. I still have two years left. I am working hard and learning each day. There will be opportunities down the road for me. I just have to work as hard as I can and be patient.”
Fighting through adversity and being patient are two things that MacLeod learned by watching his boyhood idol, former New York Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry has had a tumultuous career overcoming drug and alcohol problems and many other personal challenges, including his current battle with colon cancer. MacLeod, though, has stuck with his hero through thick and thin and it is that loyalty that he also brings to the Irish basketball team.
“My family and I use to vacation in the Fire Islands off the coast of New York,” MacLeod recalls. “Darryl played for the Mets and I used to watch his games. I don’t know if it was the name ‘Strawberry’ or watching him hit homeruns, but he has been my favorite athlete and I have followed his whole career. It definitely has been a rough career for him, but I admire how he has come through everything that has happened to him. It would have been easy to give up on him, but he is my favorite and I have to stick with him.”
While Krizmanich and MacLeod may have grown up in the shadow of the dome, junior walk-on Skylard Owens was far from it. Born and raised by his mother Celeste in Shreveport, La., with his siblings Kerry and Olivia, Owens knew Notre Dame only by the image on his television every Saturday afternoon. The 6-4 forward followed Notre Dame football since he was a kid and dreamed of attending the University.
“I always wanted to come here,” Owens said. “When I was a little kid, I always used to watch Notre Dame football. I guess I was infatuated with the gold helmets or something.”
In high school, Owens played basketball for three years, averaging 13 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior at Loyola College Prep. He was a two-time all-conference selection and team MVP his senior year. He graduated as the all-time career leader in rebounds at Loyola, but never intended on playing Division I college basketball or traveling to Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. Instead, Owens concentrated on his work in the classroom, was a member of the National Honor Society and served as senior class president.
After enrolling at Notre Dame in 1996, his friends had to convince him to tryout for the basketball team.
“I never even dreamed I’d be able to play basketball here,” Owens said. “I wasn’t even going to tryout until some of my friends convinced me to. I think it was a good decision for me.”
In his third season with the team, Owens has seen his role expand. Through the Stetson game, he has played in all 11 contests, averaging a little over 10 minutes a game, which is by far the most of any of the team’s six walk-ons. In his first season as a walk-on he only saw action in one game, while last year he played in 14.
Although he sees most of his time on the court for defensive purposes, Owens is 3-for-5 from the field, 6-for-8 from the free throw line and has 21 rebounds. He has also already passed up his career totals in almost every statistical category. He is averaging 1.1 points and 1.9 rebounds a game and is a key player off the bench backing up freshman David Graves.
“I didn’t have any basketball expectations when I came here,” Owens said. “I just told myself that I was going to make the most of it. I know what my role is here. I just want to work hard and make the team better.”
Owens is first and foremost a student at Notre Dame and not a basketball player. He is majoring in finance and computer applications with hopes of getting a job in the corporate world. “Basically, I came to Notre Dame to get a great education so I could get a good job and support my family back in Louisiana,” Owens said. “Whatever happens with basketball is an added bonus for me.”
Three different backgrounds, three different agendas, but one common goal.