By: Daniel Massa – Staff Writer
While the stigma may be fading, walk-on college athletes have often been viewed as cannon fodder for their scholarship teammates in practice.
But that’s not so, according to University of Dayton men’s basketball head coach Archie Miller.
“They’re not second-class citizens,” Miller said. “They’re doing everything that everyone else is doing. They’re very accountable in practice, and they’re very accountable to making us better.”
UD men’s basketball junior walk-on Bobby Wehrli, a 6-foot-6 inch forward, has already played some significant minutes this season for the Flyers, logging 11 minutes in the home-opening victory over Alabama A&M.
“It felt good,” Wehrli said. “The coaches had kind of told me over the summer and coming into this season that there was a chance I might have to step into that role. Getting out there and actually playing in front of the crowd with the jersey on is definitely a really cool experience.”
Some people may think of the movie Rudy based on the story of a Notre Dame football fanatic, Rudy Ruettiger, who walked on to the football team and got leveled in practice every day, hoping to one day play in a game.
In reality, walk-ons get access to the same gear, meals and general resources that scholarship athletes receive. Walk-ons just have to pay tuition.
Walk-ons in many different sports have risen through the ranks and found success.
Butler University men’s basketball player Alex Barlow, a Springboro, Ohio, native, was a walk-on when he hit a game-winning shot against then No. 1 ranked Indiana in 2012. He earned a scholarship and has started at point guard for the Bulldogs ever since.
Wehrli joined the team as a freshman after the beginning 2012-2013 season.
“I came here with the hopes of joining the team,” he said. “I had emailed some of the coaches and [Director of Basketball Operations] Bill Comar over the summer coming in to my freshman year, and he told me they had a full roster and they weren’t really looking for any walk-ons.”
Unforeseen circumstances opened new opportunities, however, and Comar asked Wehrli to join the team.
“That was the year that [Matt] Kavanaugh got suspended and some other guys transferred, so then [Comar] emailed me back a few months into school and said they needed a practice player,” Wehrli said.
Wehrli, a native of Naperville, Illinois, was also a standout volleyball player in high school at Benet Academy.
He played three years on his high school’s varsity squad, but said he did not get much college interest because he didn’t play club volleyball. He was too busy playing the other sport he loved: basketball.
A two-year varsity basketball player, Wehrli played with two current Big Ten players, Northwestern’s Dave Sobolewski and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, who is a national player of the year candidate.
“It was definitely good for my development,” he said. “I got to play against those guys every day in practice so it definitely made me a lot better.”
Now in his third year in the Flyers program, Wehrli is just one of the guys.
“The rest of the guys on the team definitely still make you feel like you’re part of the team,” Wehrli said. “You’re not really singled out as being a walk-on.”
“Bobby has really improved, from the start of the season to right now. He’s a much improved player,” Miller said. “I feel comfortable with him just in terms of being able to do what we ask him to do on the floor for short bursts. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some big moments at some point in time.”
Wehrli is a mechanical engineering major, a challenge for a typical student, let alone someone playing on a Division I basketball team.
“I really just don’t stop moving throughout the day. It’s one thing to the next,” he said. “Whenever I’m not here for practice I’m either in class or at the library doing homework.”
On Saturday against the University of Illinois at Chicago Wehrli scored his first career points. In five minutes, he converted a pair of free throws and scored UD’s last bucket of the game.
Appearing in two games and logging 16 minutes on the season, Wehrli also has recorded three total rebounds this season.
If foul trouble or injuries become an issue down low for the Flyers this season, Wehrli may have to add a minute here and there to account for the lack of depth at the forward position.
Miller’s confidence in his walk-ons, especially Wehrli, proves that “True Team” extends far beyond scholarship athletes.