By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He arrived as a walk-on, hoping to prove to others — as well as to himself — that he could compete at the highest level of college basketball.
Will Sherrill will leave UVa as a scholarship player.
With a scholarship available for 2010-11, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett happily awarded it to Sherrill, a 6-9, 225-pound senior from New York City.
“We’ve talked before about principles in our program,” Bennett said. “Servanthood is a huge one, and Will, in my opinion, he embodies what a servant-leader is about, a guy that’s willing to do whatever it takes to make his team better, in every capacity, and he’s a relentless, tireless worker.”
Bennett gave Sherrill the good news in early August, then told the rest of the team last week before the Cavaliers’ annual intrasquad softball game.
“It was really cool that he would do that for me,” Sherrill said Monday. “All the guys congratulated me, and it really meant a lot.”
At Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Sherrill starred in football, basketball and baseball. He didn’t play AAU hoops in the summers, though, and he broke his wrist during football season as a senior. He missed most of his final high school basketball season, and college coaches found other prospects to pursue.
“I was talking to a number of coaches at some schools, and they had said over the summer, ‘We like what we see. Let’s see you play during the season,’ ” Sherrill recalled. “And then when I got hurt, that definitely hurt my chances to play [college basketball].
“Coming here out of high school, the only other real opportunity I had was to play Division III. I’d hoped to play in the Ivy League, but a lot of those schools didn’t really recruit me at all. This is kind of the challenge that I wanted to embrace. Coming in, I knew that there were no promises made to me, and it would be basically what I made of it. To be able to earn a scholarship my final year is really a great honor for me.”
Sherrill played in seven games as a freshman and in 10 as a sophomore. The coaching change that followed UVa’s 2008-09 season — Bennett replaced Dave Leitao — changed the arc of Sherrill’s career.
As a junior, he started seven games and appeared in 30 overall for a team that finished 15-16, an improvement of five victories from the previous season. Sherrill’s averages of 3 points and 3 rebounds per game were modest, but his third season at UVa included one of the more remarkable performances in school history.
On the night before Thanksgiving, in a converted ballroom at the Moon Palace Resort in Mexico, Sherrill totaled 18 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 blocked shots in 24 minutes to help Virginia beat Cleveland State 76-65 in the Cancun Challenge.
He’d entered the game with career highs of 3 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block and 16 minutes.
“He got a chance through some circumstances last year to play and at times really showed some good things,” Bennett said. “Whenever you can reward a guy who’s been here three years, and paid his own way, with a scholarship, saying, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you’ve done for this program, and this is a reward and this is a challenge to keep it going,’ it’s a great feeling.
“And I think it meant a ton to Will, and I told the team why: because he earned it, and I felt like he deserved it. Not because he’s averaged 20 points a game, but he’s embodied, again, things that are important, that will make this program keep getting better.”
Early in his college career, aware of his status as a walk-on, Sherrill might have hesitated to speak up around his teammates, especially older ones. That’s no longer an issue.
He turns 22 this fall, and “I think my experience last year playing a lot, starting a few games, and becoming a consistent and significant contributor to the team, gave me some credibility with my teammates and also with myself to take that leadership role,” Sherrill said.
“As a person, I think I’ve always been friends with my teammates. Off the court I’ve always hung out with them. But on the court, there’s more’s respect in terms of, they know they can count on me in games to contribute.”
In practice, Sherrill might be the team’s best outside shooter. In games, he made only 35 of 93 attempts (37.6 percent) from the floor in 2009-10. From beyond the arc, he was 15 for 53 (28.3 percent).
He’s added nearly 10 pounds since the end of last season, and he’s spent untold hours in the gym, trying to ensure that his accuracy in games more closely matches his success in practice.
“Even though I was a junior, last year I was playing a lot for the first time, and I didn’t have a lot of experience,” Sherrill said. “I kind of went through a couple games where I missed some shots and I struggled a little bit with my confidence, so that carried over into a few more games.
“I think this year, that experience from last year really helps. And then also I watched a lot of tape in the offseason and worked with Coach [Ritchie] McKay and Coach [Ron] Sanchez on shooting, just kind of working on a couple techniques that would help me. Because a lot of the shots I missed weren’t way off. A lot of them were just kind of close. My shot was a little flat, I think, last year, and so I worked a lot on that over the offseason, and then also making sure I was balanced on every shot.”
Sherrill has a double major, in economics and history, and is on schedule to graduate next spring. Eventually, he wants to pursue a career in finance in New York, but with only one year of college basketball left, he’s determined to leave a mark on Bennett’s program first. That’s one reason he took the time to introduce the Wahoos’ six freshmen to team drills this summer.
“Coach Bennett is talking about building a program and stuff, but for me and for the other seniors on the team, this is our last year,” Sherrill said. “We’re not going to be around for the building of the program, so we’ve got to get these freshmen up to speed quickly.”
That Sherill has assumed a leadership role pleases his head coach.
“He embodies, again, the things that you want, and hopefully all our guys do that,” Bennett said. “He loves life. He embraces it. He’s kind of carefree and fun-loving, but really driven and serious about helping this program. He’s competitive, but he will do whatever’s best for the team.”