Winthrop’s Monday men’s basketball practice was humming along when there was a sudden and brief pause.
During the break, the three newest members of the team were made official. Avery Davis, Keyshawn Hunter and Dreek Morgan were awarded walk-on spots in the form of actual practice jerseys.
They looked at the jerseys as they pulled them on over their heads, two of them with smiles beaming, while the third seemed to be fighting off his own grin, trying to play it cool.
Then, just like that, it was back to practice.
“We’ve all been kind of eager to find out what was gonna happen, as far as getting jerseys,” said Morgan. “I was shocked. We didn’t see it coming.”
‘Find your own niche’
Much is expected of Davis, Hunter and Morgan.
Sure, Winthrop lost its top two scorers from last season, including Xavier Cooks, who graduated as the school’s all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker.
But four more players graduated that largely operated in the shadows except for when their late-game cameos thrust them front and center. Freddy Poole, Kellen Blake, Mitch Hill and Hunter Sadlon came in together as freshmen and when they graduated they took with them the experience of roughly 1,600 combined practices, and with it the knowledge of the Eagles’ system, and those of countless opponents.
Replacing them is not easy. College basketball programs aren’t allowed to recruit walk-ons, so finding them can involve luck. It’s also tough to find players that are motivated enough to do the things that walk-ons do with little fanfare - endless clapping, hustling, boosting up teammates, getting screamed at in practice, all while going months at a time without playing in a game.
“Being a walk-on in general, you have to find your own niche,” said Sadlon, who was calling Winthrop’s game on the radio with Dave Friedman Tuesday night. “How can we get ourselves better and be different than every other scout team in the Big South?”
Davis, Hunter and Morgan survived a tryout at the Coliseum in front of Winthrop’s coaching staff. Then the Eagles played their first two games of the season with no word on whether Davis, Morgan or Hunter made the team.
“Walk-ons mean a lot to me,” said Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, a former walk-on himself. “We didn’t just take them because they’re good players. They have to fit our culture, be about what we’re about. Those are all world class kids.”
The trio, all sophomores, seems ideally suited for the role.
Morgan is from Spartanburg, won a basketball state championship at Byrnes. He was thrilled just to have the chance to try out for a Division I college team after serving as a Winthrop team manager last season.
“It’s always been one of my dreams in high school,” he said.
Davis comes from Massachusetts. He had a shot to play Division III college ball but came to Winthrop instead because he has family in the Carolinas and because he got academic scholarships. He’s an economics major. Smart cookie, but he was still shocked to get his practice jersey Monday.
“I thought about it but I didn’t really think it would happen,” said Davis, a captain for Melrose High School’s team two years ago. “I just stay in the gym because that’s just who I am.”
Hunter’s adaptability might be one of his best traits. He was born in Charleston but has traveled the globe with his military family, finishing his high school career in Germany. He didn’t learn much of the German language, but ate the heck out of some schnitzel. He too was a team manager last season.
‘Play like it was my last time playing’
A day after Morgan, Hunter and Davis were officially added to Winthrop’s roster, the Eagles hosted Pfeiffer in the season’s home opener.
Winthrop led 73-42 at the half, a school record for most points in a half. The breakneck pace that Pfeiffer helped create with its fullcourt press didn’t bother the Eagles, who hit 65 percent of their first half shots.
Every Eagle got on the floor during Tuesday night’s game. Redshirt freshman guard Keondre Schumacher played the final three minutes of the first half, pouring in eight points and hitting another 3 at the buzzer from about 35 feet out, only for it to be waved off by the referee.
The three newest Eagles sat in a row at the end of the bench. Teammates scored and the three stood in unison and clapped. Teammates checked out of the game and the three stood, high-fiving them when they made it to the end of the bench.
Then, with 4:43 left and the Coliseum dead quiet for a brief moment, Kelsey shouted “Avery!”
Davis stood up, shed his warmup and made his way to the scorer’s table, and checked in.
Hunter was next, during a timeout with 3:19 left. The first time he touched the ball, he pulled up for a 3-pointer. And nailed it. Kelsey said he’d never even seen Hunter shoot a 3-pointer before.
And finally Morgan entered the game while his teammate, Davis, was swishing two free throws to big cheers. The crowd always cheers for the walk-ons. Davis finished with eight points in less than five minutes of action. Afterward, he had the bewildered look of a first-time father.
“My name was called and I don’t even know. My mind was blank,” Davis said, grinning hugely. “Play hard, play aggressive, play like it was my last time playing. I was playing intramurals last semester and now I’m here. Just enjoying the moment.”