Jan. 31, 2000
by Alan Wasielewski
There have been so many stories written about walk-on athletes. An
athlete tries out for a team and ends up working hard everyday with
little or no reward. That might be the public's perception of the life
of a walk-on, but do not try to tell those non-scholarship players on
the Notre Dame basketball team that they do not get rewarded for their
They are the 'Gold Team' in practice. Aaron Bannister, Tony
Carney, Hunt Hanover, John Hiltz and Charles Thomas get to be UConn, St.
John's, and Syracuse for a day. The Gold Team will get together off in a
gym away from the regular players (the 'Blue Team'), learn how to run
the other team offenses and defenses, then go to battle with the
"We just try to make the 'Blue' team work as hard as possible,"
Thomas, who hails from Flint, Mich., said. "I figure if we work hard, if
we foul them hard, they might as well get accustomed to it because that
is what the other team is going to do anyway."
"Our reward comes from seeing the team go out and perform well
because we helped prepare them," Hiltz explained. "Sometimes you can see
a specific aspect, a pick we worked on in practice, that gets played
well in the game. That is great to see."
While all the walk-ons have different motivations behind coming
to Notre Dame, they all have the bond of basketball. Working through
weeks of tryouts, not knowing if you are on the team or off, not knowing
if you will be in uniform or not, makes them realize they are living a
special part of the college experience.
"I didn't really know much about Notre Dame," Hanover said. "I knew
it was a Catholic school and had a good football team. I'm a junior, I
tried out for two years and got cut. I figured why not give it a try one
more year. It turned out to be far more than I expected."
Hiltz, who is from Fort Mitchell, Ken., and Carney, from Rockford,
Ill., are both from Notre Dame families who are living a dream by
suiting up for the Irish.
"My dad went to school here," Hiltz said. "I have pictures of me in
a Notre Dame basketball jersey when I was little. I grew up with Notre
Dame. This is something I have wanted to do since I was two years old."
"Both my parents went to Notre Dame," Carney added. "I knew I was
going to come here academically, but it was just a matter of whether I
should try-out or not. I said, 'Why not? What can it hurt?' and here I
They all became part of the team when head coach Matt Doherty met
with them at the end of the exhibition season and laid out the
expectations he had for his non-scholarship players.
"After the Marathon Oil game, Coach called us in for a meeting and
explained the situation and what he wanted out of all of us," Hiltz
said. "We all agreed to everything without hesitation. Who would turn
down this opportunity?"
It was also a chance for some players to be part of the team
they had tried out for unsuccessfully a few times.
"I was excited," Hanover said. "The last two years, they never
took anyone from the actual walk-on tryouts. I hoped that Coach Doherty
would give us a chance, and he did."
The walk-ons work out a schedule between each other on who
dresses for certain games. Thomas suits up for all the Irish games, but
the others rotate on the basis of who has family in town or other
factors. Banister received his first taste of sitting on the Irish bench
January 29, against St. John's.
"It was so exciting," Banister said. "It is nice to be out there
and be seen as part of the team."
Hanover, Hiltz, Thomas and Carney were all in uniform when the
Irish went through the mid-semester break contests against St. Peter's,
Loyola-Marymount and Elon. With the Irish winning each game comfortably,
the call was made to the end of the bench and each player stepped onto
the court for the Irish in a regular-season game.
"When Coach first came down the bench and told us to go in,"
Hiltz said. "We all looked at each other and said, 'You mean us?'"
"You walk across more than just a line when you step on the
court," Hanover explained. "You see all the people and then they all get
behind you and want you to do well."
Hiltz definitely made the most of his first opportunity to play
for the Irish. In the Elon game on December 28, for the final three
minutes, Hiltz scored six points, grabbed two rebounds, and blocked a
shot to the delight of the Irish fans. Carney also used the opportunity
to score his first career points for the Irish with a short jump shot.
"The best time is when we went out there for three minutes and
Coach called a timeout," Thomas said. "We got to sit in the chairs, the
five main chairs the regular players sit in. Coach wrote up a play, I
think it was for a press offense, but the play was unimportant. He was
talking to us."
All three players also received minutes in the next two games
against St. Peter's and Loyola-Marymount, when Thomas scored his first
career points for the Irish as well. Hanover and Thomas also had an
opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden against Arizona when the
Irish lost to the Wildcats in the Preseason NIT semifinals.
The opportunity to play in the games is a great reward for the
athletes, but they also take great pride in themselves and the team no
matter how much playing time they may receive.
"We do a lot together as a group," Hiltz said. "There are days when
we all pull together. When one of us isn't playing well, we pick each
other up. I think we know our role on the team and try accomplish it
together. Our contribution is in practice. We are responsible for
getting the team ready to play the next game. It is fun to see the
result when they win a big game we prepared them for."
The group is also quick to give a lot of credit to their
improvement as players to the other two members of the Irish team not in
the regular rotation. Former walk-on Skylard Owens and Ryan Humphrey -
who transferred and must sit out a year but practices with the team.
"We need to say something about Ryan Humphrey and Sky Owens,"
Hiltz said. "They rotate through the Gold Team we play on in practice.
Their leadership is crucial. Ryan is a guy that when he talks, we are
going to listen because he has been to the Sweet 16 and was
all-conference in the Big 12. We have benefited immensely by being
"Ryan and Sky are like my big brothers on the team," Thomas
said. "Whenever I get down, they tell me I can do it and do not let me
get on myself too much."
This group of athletes takes great pride in what they contribute
to the Notre Dame basketball team. Hearing them talk about how important
their role on the team is convinces the listener that Doherty made the
right choice in allowing Banister, Carney, Hanover, Hiltz and Thomas to
be part of the 1999-2000 Fighting Irish.
"It is a neat experience," Hanover said. "No matter what happens
out there you will never forget it. Your out there and your playing for
Notre Dame. Everyday I put on a practice jersey, I feel like I am
suiting up for a real game. I take great pride in putting on that
"The opportunity we have is great," Hiltz said. "I can't thank
Coach enough for the opportunity we have been given."