Time is winding down on another Elon University men’s basketball victory in Alumni Gym. It’s been another big day for senior guard Jack Isenbarger and senior forward Lucas Troutman. With Elon running out the clock on a big lead, head coach Matt Matheny gives those players a rest.
“Entering the game for the Phoenix, number five, Sam Hershberger!”
The guard enters to a roar from the Alumni Gym crowd. Why so much love for a 6-foot guard from Vandalia, Ohio? Hershberger is a walk-on, a player who is on the Elon roster, yet does not have a scholarship. He lives a life of being an extra body in practice and the last man in uniform on the bench.
Hershberger is one of four such players on the 2013-14 roster, joining redshirt freshman forward Wes Brewer and freshman guards Ryder Bowline and Patrick Ryan.
The path to Elon
All four of Elon’s 2013-14 walk-ons received offers to play at the NCAA Division II or III level but were drawn to the opportunity to play Division I basketball. For a variety of reasons, these players were exposed to Elon.
“During AAU [Amateur Athletic Union], they were recruiting one of my teammates, [current Elon sophomore center] Tony Sabato, so they got to see me play a little bit there,” Hershberger said. “I had a little bit of contact with [assistant] Coach [Jack] Wooten about walking on, what the process would be like. I actually sent him some highlights after my senior year and he liked what he saw and he said, ‘You can come down and if you try out, you have a good chance of making it.’”
Brewer is a local prospect, having played high school basketball at Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington. That allowed him to develop a familiarity with Elon and its program.
“Me and coach Jack Wooten went to the same high school,” Brewer said. “So I knew who he was. I came and talked to him, told him that I didn’t think I was going to pursue any of the [Div. II or Div. III] options that I had. He said I had a pretty good shot of walking on as long as I came in in shape.’”
He added that being a true student-athlete also played a major factor in his decision.
“I took some visits to Division II schools, but they were subpar educationally and the whole student life part of it was subpar,” Brewer said. “I got into Elon — I applied just as a normal student to have the option, and I decided to pursue that option because of the benefits of being a student here versus just being a student-athlete somewhere else.”
Elon’s newest players, Bowline and Ryan, utilized Elon’s summer camp as the primary means of exposure.
“I’ve been coming to [Elon’s summer camp] ever since I was about 10 years old, so I have known the coaches for years and it just kind of worked itself out,” Bowline said. “I have so much family up here, it’s nice to see all of them. Basically my whole mom’s side of the family lives here and I love the school.”
Ryan did not come as much as Bowline, but his trip to summer camp before his senior year of high school helped him get a spot with the Phoenix.
“There was some familiarity there,” Ryan said. “I talked to [assistant] Coach [Tim] Sweeney and he seemed optimistic, so then I came here.”
Adjustment upon arrival
Regardless of what the players were told before coming to Elon, they still had to earn a spot on the team as a walk-on.
The tryouts occurred in early October of each player’s freshman year and were a multi-part process.
“We had two tryouts — the first one was at about 6:30 in the morning,” Hershberger said. “We had that and then we had a second tryout the next day. “
For Ryan, his tryout included a one-week trial as a team member.
“My tryout process was tough because they already had 16 guys on the roster,” Ryan said. “So I made the cut at the first tryout, then I had to go to practice for a week to see if there was still a fit there, then they were kind of like, ‘OK, we’ll add a 17th guy.’”
Once the players made the team, they had to adjust from being a key high school player to a college walk-on with a specific job.
“I think I’d be lying to you if I said it was never tough,” Hershberger said. “Anyone making the transition to college, the transition period isn’t always easy — just learning the system, learning what coach [Matheny] is looking for, figuring out my role.”
Elon’s walk-ons go day-to-day not knowing what the next practice has in store for them.
“Some days we won’t get a rep and some days we won’t get a break. No day is the same, every day is different,” Brewer said.
Walk-ons help out in drills for the team and serve as extra bodies in intrasquad scrimmages. With several injuries to key Elon players in this preseason, the walk-ons have seen significant time in practice.
While they may not play very much, the walk-ons know they are still a part of a special era in Elon basketball.
“This program is on the brink of being a year-in, year-out national powerhouse — just being a part of something like that is huge,” Brewer said.
“Hopefully we’ll have some really great things to tell our grandkids about Elon in 2013-14,” Hershberger said.