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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

That walk-on life

March+16%2C+2017.++Sophomore+guard+Tyler+Trillo+%2850%29+during+the+Wildcats+100-82+win+over+the+North+Dakota+Fighting+Hawks+in+the+1st+round+of+the+NCAA+tournament.++Vivint+Smart+Home+Arena%2C+Salt+Lake+City%2C+UT.
Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics
March 16, 2017. Sophomore guard Tyler Trillo (50) during the Wildcats 100-82 win over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament. Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City, UT.

SALT LAKE CITY—The fondness of upsets in the NCAA Tournament can blind people from the joy of a blowout and the results that ensue, such as the ecstasy a walk-on feels when getting to realize a lifelong dream.

For Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball walk-ons Tyler Trillo, Jake DesJardins, Kory Jones and Paulo Cruz, that dream became a reality with just over two minutes left in Thursday’s blowout victory against North Dakota in the NCAA Tournament. Trillo, a transfer from NCAA Division III Roger Williams University, checked in at the 2:13 mark alongside five North Dakota players, including walk-on Devon Pekas. One minute later DesJardins, Jones and Cruz joined him.

Related: Sights and Sounds from Salt Lake City

For these players, it isn’t about playing time, it is about the hard work and dedication into making the team they play for better, in any way possible. Arizona head coach Sean Miller said as much when he mentioned that this years walk-on class is the best they have ever had during his time at the UA.

“They contribute an amazing amount, they’re our quote, unquote, ‘scout team.’ We rely on them to simulate the other team,” Miller said. “They do it as well as any group that we’ve had, selfless. Those are the guys you want to hire when college ends because they do all of the things that everybody else does, but they get very little credit. We have a great group of walk-ons, and I’m glad we were able to get them in.”

They are the very definition of a student athlete, academia and athletics in its purest form. The work these players put in comes without recognition, it comes without any realization of significant playing time; instead, it is the opportunity to be a part of one of the best teams in the country and the frills that come with it. 

The sacrifice is more evident when you realize that each walk-on had chances to play at lesser profile schools but opted to play for the Wildcats.

“I had a few division II offers and I had some interest from some other division ones and I was just kind of waiting on what to do,” DesJardins said. “[Arizona] was always a dream school of mine and I actually got an academic scholarship to the UA. I sent [the coaching staff] an email with film, transcripts and all that stuff. They called me less than 30 minutes later and were like, ‘Hey, we’re actually looking for another walk-on if you’d be interested; we have to talk to coach [Miller] still.’ Two weeks later, I went out there and visited and it happened right there.”

Constant contact is the theme between these four walk-ons. They were a pest to put it lightly, but to get your “dream job” isn’t that what it takes? Email after email, phone call after phone call, these guys didn’t let up when trying to contact the men’s basketball staff and get a tryout. A relenting pursuit toward the chance to get beat up every day in practice and run the ringer while being asked to enjoy it, dedication folks.

The story of DesJardins is similar to Trillo and Cruz who had opportunities at other places but valued the chance to be with a college basketball brand such as Arizona. Kory Jones’ story differs a bit, coming through the ranks of pick up basketball games at the Student Recreation Center. A lot of kids think there may be the opportunity for a walk-on position based on their play in the fitness center, but few have actually lived the reality like Jones.

“I found a way to contact coach [Joe] Pasternack and found out how I can do it,” Jones said. “He watched me play at the Rec Center a couple times and it ended up working out for them. About three weeks later, they told me to come in and take a picture with a uniform on, so I guess that was the official word.”

Jones was on the court, less than two weeks after joining the team full time, in front of the McKale faithful. Talk about living the dream of a student at UA, one minute you’re playing pick up basketball with Timmy from Chemistry class, next you’re running full-court sprints next to Lauri Markkanen, a future NBA draft pick. Not too shabby.

Every walk-on is part of the scout team for Arizona, meaning they mimic the opposing teams players as best they can to simulate game situations. It is perhaps the most important role they have throughout the course of the season. It comes with all the pressure of game preparation without the fruits of seeing the game through. It is a relished position if you ask any of them, and Miller is appreciative of the effort each one of them has given to make the program as great as it can be.

“Anybody that you add to your program has to be a part of a solution,” Miller said. “Has to be somebody that can really add value. … And those guys—for example, what we’re about ready to do [practice], we have 90 minutes. We have one shot to represent St. Mary’s and prepare the best that we can. … Who represents St. Mary’s? Those guys [walk-ons]. … How intelligent they are, they have to love the game, they have to be selfless, and being able to put them in the game last night was great for them. They’re a part of our team, and we value what they do a tremendous amount.”

As for the experience of actually setting foot in an NCAA Tournament game, well, it went past what they could’ve imagined. Each player took the floor, full of excitement and nerves.

“It was my first March Madness experience, nerves were going through my body,” Cruz said. “It’s an amazing experience just to be here. Not too many people can say they played in an NCAA Tournament game.”

The unsung heroes of this year’s Wildcats shouldn’t go unnoticed. The minute or two of playing time each walk-on received is a lifetime experience that they will never forget. It is more than playing time, it is the recognition of the contributions each of them has made in the most basic way, game time.

“It was awesome, didn’t it really expect it at first, we had a big lead,” Trillo said. “It’s the tournament, anything can happen and it felt good to get out there and experience it for yourself.”


Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.


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