- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

Thousands of empty seats.

No television cameras.

A smattering of fans, most cheering for the visiting team.

Obviously this is not your typical Division I men’s basketball milieu. But for players at a handful of D-I schools, it is a dream come true.

That is the story of junior varsity players. They play in relative obscurity, and they don’t receive scholarships or attention. All play because they love basketball, and some refuse to relinquish their hopes of making varsity.

Once a staple of college basketball, JV teams faded after freshmen were granted eligibility for the 1972-73 season. A scattered few still remain, however — throwbacks to a simpler era when the game was not a commodity.

Perhaps the most prominent program that still retains a JV team is at North Carolina, where the team has been as much a part of the school’s longstanding basketball tradition as anything else. Among those who coached the Tar Heels JV are Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown, North Carolina coach Roy Williams and former South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler.

Simply being a part of Tar Heel lore is enough motivation for sophomore point guard Dewey Burke.

“I went to tryouts with no expectation to make it,” Burke said. “Honestly, it’s been a dream come true to wear that jersey and play on that court. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

“That court” is the Smith Center, where the JV squad plays all of its games against nearby prep schools like Hargrave Military Academy and D-III teams. Except for the prep school players who go on to play at the D-I level, a nearly empty Smith Center is the biggest venue in which most of them will ever play.

“They come in and immediately want to ask questions like, do we have interaction with the varsity and what’s it like to play here,” Burke said. “I know everyone on the other team is excited to play on the Smith Center court. It is pretty awesome to walk on that court.”

There always has been a strong relationship between the Tar Heels’ varsity and JV. Players from both teams spend a lot of time around each other, Burke said, and the JV team is given seats behind the bench at all varsity games.

About 40 players try out for the JV each season, coach Jerod Haase said. This season he trimmed the roster to 15, although he said that under past coaches the team was more inclusive.

Most players who survive the JV cut eventually try out for the varsity team, and most don’t make it. They still have another route to the big stage, however: One or two players are promoted to varsity each season, Haase said. Despite the long odds, some players refuse to give up hope.

“I would say they all have aspirations, but only a few believe it could really happen,” Haase said. “Then it turns into a numbers game — it’s more as if there’s a need on varsity than that we have to move someone up.”

It is likely to become even more competitive next season, when Haase expects more seniors to show up at tryouts. Until this season, seniors had been ineligible to play for the team.

The situation for JV hopefuls isn’t quite as cutthroat at Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia. While the limelight is focused on the No.2 Hawks, who finished off a 27-0 regular season Tuesday, the other squad is rebounding from an 0-6 start.

Reinstated by varsity coach Phil Martelli about 10 years ago, the team is open to anyone who wants to play. Twenty-three players came out for the JV Hawks this year, said coach Mike Farrelly, whose “no-cut” policy presented a slight problem the first few weeks of the season.

“I wasn’t able to give them all uniforms,” he said. “Some of the guys found out that they didn’t have enough time or it’s not what they wanted. After one week, we had about 18 left, and after three weeks it was about 15.”

Now 13 in number, the JV Hawks practice at 9:30 p.m. and travel by van to various nearby outposts to play mostly smaller D-III schools and community colleges ranging from Cabrini College to Camden (N.J.) County College.

When asked about the team’s budget, Farrelly laughed.

“It’s not very much, I know that,” he said. “We get uniforms ‘as needed.’ We had hand-me-down uniforms my freshman year, but they got uniforms for JV a couple of years ago. We might get team sneakers this year.”

One player who stuck around was Justin Worzel, a sophomore tri-captain from Lakeville, Pa.

“I knew I wasn’t good enough to make a D-I team,” Worzel said. “It keeps me busy and takes me away from work. Plus, it lets me play like I did in high school.”

Although Worzel was recruited by state schools such as Lock Haven and Shippensburg, he said all he wanted to do was play basketball at a Philadelphia school.

“I knew the competition and level of play would be higher, just in terms of pickup games,” he said.

Although the schedule is demanding, the focus is on academics, not athletics — a refreshing contrast to the rest of upper-echelon D-I men’s basketball.

“In the beginning, it takes a lot of getting used to,” Worzel said. “You have to work around your school schedule because that’s most important.”

Along with three or four of his teammates, Worzel will try out for varsity in the future. Farrelly, who works at American Express Financial Advisors in addition to the 15 to 20 hours a week he spends coaching, can relate. He played on the team for a year before walking on to varsity.

“This is a stepping grounds for kids to walk on to the varsity team,” he said. “It’s also another chance for kids to play at a level more than intercollegiate. Plus, our campus is crazy about basketball, so it’s another chance to be around the game.”

That applies as well to Farrelly, who often steps into drills and stays past midnight to assist players with extra practice.

“We know that we’re not going to get any attention,” Worzel said. “We play to win. We play for ourselves. I think it’s a good thing for college students to do. It’s a way to get away.”

Even more, it’s a way for players to be a part of a prestigious program. Just wearing a jersey emblazoned with the Hawks’ logo might provide a psychological advantage, he said.

“I’m not positive, but I’d assume [opponents] would be a little intimidated just from the name, since the varsity is No.2 in the nation,” Worzel said. “But it’s just a normal game, five guys against five guys.”

Five guys against five guys — that’s the essence of JV basketball and all Worzel needs to keep playing.

“I think I will, just to stay in shape, stay busy and keep my mind off other things,” he said.

St. Joe’s does not have to go far to find another JV squad to play. Ten minutes away, Pennsylvania fields a team as well. Compared to North Carolina and St. Joe’s, however, Penn players have the most remote shot at making varsity. In fact, no players in the past four or five years have been promoted from JV to varsity, coach Harris Adler said. But that doesn’t deter players like sophomore Jeff Bilsky.

“I would say the main motivation is that I’ve been a Penn fan my whole life,” Bilsky said. “As for the rest of the team, we’ve played competitive basketball our whole lives, and we just want to keep doing that.”

Basketball at Penn isn’t merely a game — it’s an experience. Penn JV players are fortunate enough to play in the Palestra, the legendary 77-year-old basketball cathedral.

“That means a lot to me,” Bilsky said. “My dad played there, and I’ve watched games there on TV. I never get tired of playing there. It’s a great feeling. You see all of the players walking around and looking at all of the history.”

Added Adler: “Teams want to come here and play us. Guys want to have the experience of playing here.”

Of those players, more than a few have gone on to play D-I varsity. Each season Penn plays host to numerous prep schools teeming with talent.

“One year, we played [former high school standout] Lenny Cook,” Bilsky said. “Pretty much all of the schools we play have top D-I prospects on them.”

There is one thing missing from Penn JV games: crowd support.

“It’s like high school — you get the parents of the players and the occasional friend,” Bilsky said. “We usually get outdrawn by the opposing team. It’s kind of sad. I said we should try to fool everyone by putting a JV game on the varsity schedule, but it didn’t work.”

But crowds don’t really matter to Burke, Worzel and Bilsky. They might be among the true last amateurs, playing every game in gymnasiums devoid of fans with no hope of a conference title or a national championship. And loving every minute of it.

“I wasn’t ready to stop being a part of a team,” Burke said. “We play because we love being a part of a team and enjoying that camaraderie. It’s a nice balance between being a full-blown, big-time athlete and a regular student.”

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