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Riding the Pine

For walk-ons, wearing a uniform is all that counts.

By Ken Krayeske

The University of Connecticut women lead Syracuse by 40 points with three minutes left. Coach Geno Auriemma looks down the end of his bench and gives sophomore walk-on guard Marci Czel the nod.

Czel checks in at the scorer's table, and hands her warm-up jersey to the exciting Shea Ralph. The crowd applauds Ralph, but gives a warmer welcome to the oncoming Czel.

When she bangs two three-pointers, giving her a career-high six points, the 10,000-plus people at Gampel Pavilion go nuts. They even cheer when she misses a third shot.

This is Czel's reward for enduring the difficulties of playing day after day in practice. For Czel and other walk-ons, such as sophomore guard Ed Tonella on the men's team, just being a member of a national championship contender is enough.

"I'm thankful to be part of the team," Czel says. "I know I'm not going to play. When I do, it's a reward for sticking it out."

Both Czel and Tonella were stars on their respective high school teams -- Czel was a captain at Guilford High School and Tonella played at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tuscon, Arizona. They have enough talent to play a lot more frequently at smaller schools, but neither regrets their decision to trade playing time for bench time.

"It's a no-lose situation," Tonella says. "My parents are happy and proud, and I'm doing something I love. I've been on television, I travel to the best hotels, and I'm surrounded by excellence, the coaches, the players and the fans. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Ken Krayeske photo

Walk-ons are mainly practice players, says Tim Tolokan, UConn's associate director of athletics/communications.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sets men's and women's roster limits at 15 uniformed players per game, says John Paquette, the Big East's associate commissioner of communications.

The NCAA allows 13 scholarships for men, and more for women because of gender equity rules imposed under federal Title IX legislation.

"Sometimes you have scholarship players not in uniform -- they're red-shirting [sitting out a season due to injury or academics, but keeping a year of eligibility] or what not -- so you might end up using walk-ons," Paquette says.

At some point, just about every team uses walk-ons, Paquette says, although it is an institutional decision. Neither the Big East nor the NCAA have rules about the number of scholarships or walk-ons. "All of our schools offer the scholarship limit because they want to compete," he says. "They're making the financial commitment because they want to have the best quality."

Walk-ons are a vital part of a team, according to Auriemma. While his women scrimmage against a team of men in practice, he still accepts walk-ons, and always has.

Colleen Healy from Windham may have helped insure that policy. Healy started out as a team manager in 1990-91, and earned her way to a scholarship by 1993-94. She helped the cause of walk-ons everywhere by sinking a few memorable baskets, including a buzzer beater.

"I believe in the concept of walk-ons," Auriemma says. "I like to give kids the opportunity to be a part of this. It's hard for the average person to see tangible effects of a walk-on, to rationalize the concept."

The first-string players know firsthand that walk-ons help a team many ways. "Them being there is part of our success. Without them, we don't have anyone else to practice against," says UConn guard Ricky Moore, a senior scholarship athlete. "When we need breaks in practice, they fill the spot."

In practice, Moore says you know walk-ons love basketball. "They're out there enjoying themselves. We don't take mercy on them because we're competitors. For the ones that stay, you can tell they love the game," he says.

Tonella wears his bruises with pride. "It's tough going against the big guys because you get hammered. If you're hurting, you can't complain. Your job is to help the players," he says. Tonella ends up on the hardwood often in practice, especially when the 6-11, 245-pound center Jake Voskuhl runs through picks set by the 5-10, 175-pound Tonella.

"They show hard work and desire, but they don't get any praise," Voskuhl says. "Hard work has a lot to say for those guys. I have a lot of respect for them. When I see them get in a game and score a bucket, that's a highlight for them."

Czel says she and fellow walk-on guard and forward Courtney Gaine know they're not in uniform to score game-winners but to improve the team. "Our job when we're scrimmaging is to make them better," Czel says. "You play your hardest."

For someone who comes to practice, loves the game, and loves the team, Auriemma says it's worth it. "It's got be someone who works hard, a real positive kid. They have to be the right kid with the right intangibles. And Marci has proven to be exactly that. The kids like her because she is a good teammate," he says.

Czel ultimately aims to become a basketball coach, and she considers this the best spot to learn. Auriemma's style mirrors that of her high school coach, Jim Rooney. It's a winning blueprint of being a "hard-ass" as Czel terms it.

UConn faithful might recognize Rooney's name because before taking the head women's job at Guilford, he coached former Huskies star Chris Smith at Bridgeport's Kolbe-Cathedral high school.

While at Guilford, he taught Czel how to play. During her senior year, she captained a 24-1 team that was two wins from a state championship.

Guilford captains traditionally wear the number 13, which Czel has continued to wear at UConn. "All our kids are proud of her because she chose that number," Rooney says. "She brings something special to any program, a strength of character and an unwillingness to accept anything less than the best."

Czel began her hoops career in middle school, and her mother Jeannie says she remembers the night Marci came home and said, "You know, I think I like basketball better than soccer."

On their first visit to UConn, they walked by Gampel Pavilion and Czel told her mother she could feel the electricity. A few weeks before the tryout out in October 1997, Czel visited assistant coach Jamelle Elliot and was awed by the quality of the pick-up game. "I saw Rita Williams face in a lay-up, and it was just like on TV," she says.

The conditioning regimen pushed Czel hard. She had never lifted weights before and was barely able to run the necessary 6- minute mile. "Many times I wanted to give up, but I kept coming until they told me one way or another," Czel says.

During the tryout, she talked to Rooney every day. "All she wanted was to be a part of the team," he says.

When she walked in and found a uniform and a locker reserved for her, it was a happy day, she says. This year is even better. "Last year was tough. The team didn't get a chance to know me. I thought I was working hard, but I wasn't," she says. "This year, my work ethic has improved, and the players have given me respect for that."

"She feels she part of the team this year," Rooney says. The support she received from teammates when her 22-year-old brother died in December 1998 has kept her going, she says.

"They've been here for me. Having this family has been great. If it wasn't for them, it would be harder," she says. Her father, Rit, says he can't believe what she has accomplished. "There are things my children have done that are so far beyond my expectations, it makes me proud," he says.

When Czel talks to former teammates, they want to know what it's like to play for one of the best teams in the country. She tells them she herself can't believe she's there. When the regular season ended on Feb. 26, Czel had played 57 minutes in 18 games, 13 in the Big East. She had 16 points, 5 assists, 8 rebounds and a steal and a blocked shot.

But statistics aren't so important. "I think she's learning an awful lot here," Rooney says. "She knows her responsibility is to learn as much as she can so she can coach on a collegiate level, and this is one heck of a classroom."

Tonella is just as awestruck by his position. One day he was an accounting major, sitting in the stands watching the men's team open the season at the traditional "Midnight Madness" practice session in October. The next thing he knew he was signing autographs.

"How did this come to happen to me?" Tonella wonders. "The first time a kid approached me, I was like 'You want my autograph?' It's been a rush. It doesn't stop."

It started when Tonella's mother Mariluz Fernandez, a professor of nutrition, left the University of Arizona for a job at UConn for the 1996-97 school year. Tonella, though, stayed in Arizona when his tightly knit family -- father Eduardo, and younger brothers Fernando and Alejandro -- moved to Storrs.

"I had no car, no job, I was living at a friend's house," Tonella says. "I didn't want to come here." His family moved to Tuscon from Mexico when he was 7, and he spent his youth in Tuscon.

There, he was a stand-out guard at Salpointe Catholic High School, where his team won regularly. The Arizona Republic named Salpointe Catholic the best athletic school in its division.

His high school team made it to the state playoffs, and some of Tonella's former teammates also made it to Division I schools such as the University of New Mexico and Washington State University.

During his freshman year at the University of Arizona, Tonella wasn't on a team. He played pick-up ball with his friend John Ash, a walk-on at Arizona, and guard Miles Simon, who lead the Wildcats to a national championship in the 1996-97 season.

But he was struggling with himself. When his mother came to visit in the fall of 1997, he decided to give Connecticut a try. "I liked it," he says. "When I got here, I found out how special Connecticut basketball is."

Last season, he sat in the stands rooting for the Huskies. He had followed Khalid El-Amin's career as a high school stand-out in Minnesota, and knew about many other players' prep careers. "I watched the Stanford game sitting in the student section, and said to myself, 'I want to do this.'"

In pick-up games at the field house, he says UConn guard Albert Mouring told him to go for the team. His friend Ash convinced him to do it. "My friend told me I was good enough to play. He wouldn't lie to me," he says. "He said, 'If you don't try out, I won't be your friend.'"

Tonella left the first tryout doubting himself. "I didn't know if I could do this. I was scared. I knew I could play with them, but I was intimidated. I saw Rip [Richard Hamilton] and Khalid. I was like 'Wow.' My dad encouraged me. But I knew deep down I couldn't quit."

Out of 25 first-day hopefuls, he survived the cut. "As the days went by, I started being more and more comfortable. I started talking to the players and they were normal," he says. After two weeks, he says he started to earn some respect.

The team let him suit up for the Marathon Oil exhibition, but he didn't know he made the team until Nov. 15. He walked into the locker room and asked the trainer whose uniform it was. "He said, 'It's yours.' I put it on very slowly. When I walked out, the whole student section was looking at me, I was the only walk-on. I knew I had accomplished something. It was the biggest moment of my life," he says. "I knew my life had changed. I enjoy every minute of it."

Making the team has taught Tonella responsibility, toughness, and the confidence to reach goals. "It's given me options," he says. "I'm not scared of anything. If I can make the team at UConn, I can do whatever I want." At 21, he says the scariest part of his life is over. "It's the best choice I've made in my life."

It's also been difficult at times, especially going from being an anonymous student to being in the spotlight. At first the attention embarrassed him. "I'm the same person I was two weeks ago, and now the crowd is calling my name," he says. "It's a dream."

Tonella saw more playing time earlier in the season. He has played in seven games, has hit two of four from the floor for four points, and has an assist and a steal. "I may not show up on the stats, but I feel like I'm doing something for the team," he says.

When it's a blowout for UConn -- which means he might get some playing time -- Tonella says he gets nervous sitting on the bench looking at the clock, waiting for it to tick down. "When I get out there, though, it disappears. I don't hear the crowd. I focus on the game and I want to play ball."

Tonella considers his best moment came running the offense for the last three and a half minutes of the Big East contest against Notre Dame on Jan. 12. "They told me I did a good job," he says. "I know we're up by 30, but I play as hard as the other guys.

"To me it doesn't matter if I play 10 seconds or not at all. Knowing I'm one of 15 is enough," Tonella adds. "A lot of people in Connecticut would kill to be part of the team. I know my role is to sit on the bench and encourage the team."

Photos by Ken Krayeske

Related stories:

Riding the Pine - For walk-ons, wearing a uniform is all that counts.
Cheerleaders or Reporters? - Covering the UConn beat
The Stat that Lasts - UConn basketball's graduation rate
Take a Chance on the Dance - Got five bucks? Be part of it.

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