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The Daily Tar Heel

Walk-Ons Fulfill Dreams On UNC's Varsity Teams

By Nolan Hayes

Sports Editor

Jim Everett came to UNC as an unlikely candidate to play varsity basketball.

He didn't make the varsity squad at Providence High School in Charlotte until his senior year. Even then, he never started a game. Not one.

Yet there he is every game, sitting in uniform on the UNC bench as a walk-on. He gets no scholarship money and only slightly more playing time, but he loves it.

"It's awesome," Everett says. "It's like a dream come true just to be out here."

Everett is one of many walk-ons fulfilling their athletic dreams at the University. These athletes were not recruited in most cases and receive no money. They take part in all kinds of sports and come from all kinds of situations.

Some are instrumental to their teams' success on game day. Others, such as Everett, aren't. But they all have roles of some sort and find ways to contribute.

Take Julia Marslender. She arrived at UNC in 1997 as a walk-on on the women's soccer team. Marslender was never supposed to play, but she persevered and ended up starting as a defender this year.

"I've kind of been on both sides, starter and reserve," Marslender says. "So now I can say, looking back as a starter, it's a great feeling to be on the other side. People shouldn't be discouraged if they're not playing or starting - because it can happen."

Marslender is a perfect example, but by no means is she the only rags-to-riches story at UNC. Jeff Reed, a place-kicker on the football team, didn't even make road trips early in his career. He practiced kick after kick with the idea that one day he might get his chance to shine.

That day came this season after Josh McGee, the highest-scoring kicker in UNC history, graduated.

Reed connected on all 30 of his extra-point attempts and made 16 of 20 field goals this year. It was good enough for a spot on the All-ACC second team. It also was good enough to earn him what every walk-on wants: a scholarship.

"A walk-on who gets a scholarship has truly earned it in every way," says Carl Torbush, Reed's coach before Torbush was fired Nov. 20. "That's the reason I respect them so much.

"When we sign a guy out of high school, we're giving him a scholarship because we think he has a chance to be a good college player. A walk-on who comes in here, if he gets a scholarship, we know he's made a contribution."

That's why coaches, regardless of how good their teams are, always have room for walk-ons. Marslender is one of seven on her team this season.

"We have a tradition here of welcoming walk-ons, and they've always impacted for us," women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance says. "We look at every player who comes down and basically give them an opportunity and a fair shot to play."

Although Dorrance gives walk-ons every chance to succeed, he isn't in a position where he must do so. He brings in a set of topflight recruits every season and could win his fair share of matches using just his scholarship players.

But not all of the UNC's coaches are so lucky. Joel Furtek, the rowing coach, builds his squad with walk-ons and holds open tryouts each year.

Fifty-four of the 56 women on his team this year were not recruited, making rowing a virtual sorority of walk-ons.

Teams with primarily scholarship players have a different dynamic. Walk-ons must find a way to fit in, which can be easy or challenging depending on the way their coaches and teammates treat them.

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Marslender's rite of passage came in preseason conditioning. Dorrance puts his players through a set of rigorous physical tests, and only the strong survive.

"Really, it's just a matter of gaining respect by completing the fitness and actually succeeding in it," Marslender says. "Once you make it through by never quitting and never stopping running, at that point, everyone's equal."

But it sometimes takes a while for a walk-on to feel equal.

Everett tried to keep a low profile last year as he awaited the decision of whether then-coach Bill Guthridge was going to keep him on the team. After Everett made the team and began to feel comfortable, he was able to relax.

"By the time we got to the Final Four last year, I was being myself," Everett says. "I was being crazy and loud and saying silly things.

"(UNC center) Brendan (Haywood) thinks something happened, like I snapped. I was just being myself."

He was just being a walk-on.

Assistant SportSaturday Editor

James Giza contributed to this report.

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.