They go unannounced and mostly unnoticed during pre-game introductions, standing and applauding as the starters run by. Some see their roles change during the course of a season, eventually becoming starters themselves. They are vital to a team's preparation, often an overlooked part of its success.
They are the ones on the bench, often young players looking to make a breakthrough on the Division I level. At Loyola this season, second-year coach Dino Gaudio has gone to his bench for answers that, more often than not, have been slow in coming.
In freshman Anthony Walker, Gaudio found a talented, if erratic shooting guard who could complement Jason Rowe. In sophomore Ryan Blosser, Gaudio found a versatile, if athletically limited player who could give him minutes at guard or forward. Both found themselves among the players on the bench after early-season injuries.
"With the makeup of our team, being so young, we're going to have ups and downs," Gaudio said after practice last Friday at Reitz Arena. "Individuals are going to have ups and down."
As Loyola was about to conclude its regular season and get ready for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, the players contemplated the past four months and what the future might hold. And Gaudio reflected upon a regular season that included more lineup changes (13) than victories (12).
Finding the right combination as a coach is as important as finding the right role as a player. It is sometimes a fragile process, considering that most Division I players were starters on their high school teams.
Whether Gaudio has found that mix is still unclear as the 12-14 Greyhounds go to the MAAC tournament Friday in Buffalo, N.Y., as the No. 9 seed.
"During the preseason this year, I put the high school scoring averages of all our players on a blackboard," said Gaudio. "The total came to 154.8. I told them we're not going to score that much in a game, that they're not going to score as much or play as much as they did in high school. You have to coach attitude."
In the team's media guide, his profile begins: "Anthony Walker adds a dimension to the Greyhounds that was missing last year. He is a pure shooter with deadly accuracy when left open, but also is big and strong enough to create a jumper off the dribble has all the tools to become a premier shooting guard in the MAAC."
That was written before Walker broke a bone in his shooting hand during preseason workouts and missed a month of practice. So instead of competing for the starting job that was won by Baltimore's Damien Jenifer (Mervo), a fellow freshman, Walker played catch-up from the bench. He did not start for the team's first 17 games.
Failing to start was an experience Walker had not had since his freshman year at Charlestown (Mass.) High School.
"After I broke my hand, I was so behind," said Walker, who missed Loyola's first three regular-season games because of the injury. "I felt miserable. I kept asking Coach [Gaudio], 'What can I do [to get playing time]?' He told me just to be myself, to take my shots and my time would come."
It was frustrating for Walker, as it has been for others itching to snap off their warm-ups and get into the game. While in street clothes, Walker had watched the Greyhounds win their first three games. When he returned, the Greyhounds started a three-game losing streak. But he barely contributed.
"We kept seeing a lot of zones and sagging defenses, and we needed somebody like Anthony, who can shoot from the outside," said Gaudio. "When he did get the opportunity, he made the most of it."
The chance came when Gaudio put Walker in the starting lineup in place of Jenifer, who had hit only nine of 37 shots in a five-game stretch. In an 81-69 road victory at Marist, Walker made seven of eight shots, including five of six from three-point range, and finished with a season-high 21 points.
Walker has been in the starting lineup for seven of the last eight games.
"I have a lot more confidence in my game right now," said Walker, who has 13.2 points in eight starts compared with 6.3 points in 23 overall. "I've also told the other guys who were on the bench with me, 'Look, I was on the bench, too. I got my chance. Keep playing hard.' "
In high school in Waynesboro, Va., Ryan Blosser was the proverbial big fish in the little pond. Maybe not as big as Corey Alexander had been in Waynesboro before going on to be a star at Virginia. But big enough to start all four years in high school, including the last three at Fishburne Military Academy there.
"It was always my dream to play Division I basketball," recalled Blosser.
At 6 feet 4 and more than 190 pounds, Blosser had decent size. But admittedly, he didn't have the kind of athleticism that most coaches want. Through the recommendation of Alexander, Blosser was recruited by Brian Ellerbe, then the coach at Loyola.
By the time Blosser graduated high school, Ellerbe had left Loyola.
"I give Coach Gaudio a lot of credit for sticking by me. A lot of coaches in his position wouldn't have done that because I wasn't one of his guys," said Blosser. "When I came here, I was thankful to be here. But this year, I had bigger expectations."
After starting 18 times and averaging more than 21 minutes as a freshman, Blosser expected a large role as a sophomore. It never materialized. Ineffective as a spot starter earlier in the season and hampered by a nagging back injury, Blosser found himself coming off the bench. Despite scoring a season-high 14 points in Saturday's 103-86 loss to Niagara, four short of a career high, Blosser is disappointed with the way he played this year.
"Coming in here, I had all the dreams and goals of any idealistic 18-year-old," said Blosser, who averaged 17 minutes and 3.9 points this season. "Coming from a small town, the caliber of athlete is not the same as it is at this level. I used to only think about myself. How many points am I going to score? Now I'm more team-oriented. I don't care about myself."
Blosser said he is enjoying his life at Loyola. He respects the coaching staff and likes the camaraderie with his teammates. A psychology major, Blosser relishes the academic challenges. He likes Baltimore. He is realistic about his future in basketball.
"If I saw myself as a first-round [NBA] draft choice, I might be upset," he said of his reserve role.
"It's been a humbling experience, but a good humbling experience," he said.
Pub Date: 2/23/99