By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He has broken his right leg twice in the past three months. If that’s good luck, Will Sherrill doesn’t need any more of it.
That said, Sherrill acknowledges that things could be worse. Injuries may have marred his final basketball season at the University of Virginia, but they have not ended it.
“Thankfully it’s an injury where you can play with it, if you can handle playing with some pain,” Sherrill said after practice Thursday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “So in that sense, yeah, I think it’s fortunate.”
Sherrill has one of the more remarkable stories of anyone in second-year Tony Bennett’s program. He joined the team as a walk-on in 2007, when Dave Leitao was head coach, but remained an afterthought until Bennett took over in the spring of 2009.
A 6-9, 226-pound forward from New York City, Sherrill played a total of 31 minutes his first two seasons at UVa. He played 462 as a junior, after which Bennett awarded him a scholarship for 2010-11.
Sherrill also was named one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with fellow seniors Mustapha Farrakhan and Mike Scott. He had every reason to believe this would be a memorable season for him. It has been exactly that, of course, but not for the reasons Sherrill hoped.
On the night he made his fourth straight start, Sherrill fractured his right fibula in the second half of UVa’s Nov. 29 win over then-No. 15 Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Surgery was not required, but Sherrill, who had sparkled at the Maui Invitational, missed the Wahoos’ next five games.
In his first game back, Dec. 30 against Iowa State, he played 23 minutes and grabbed a career-best 9 rebounds. It was a gritty performance, but Sherrill struggled to regain his shooting touch after returning from the injury, and his reduced mobility limited his defensive effectiveness.
Sherrill, 12 for 22 from beyond the arc before the injury, did not make a 3-pointer in an ACC game until Feb. 5, against Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. That shot did little to lift his spirits, however, because Sherrill suffered another break in his right fibula that afternoon.
Out of the lineup Sherrill went again, this time for three games. He returned Wednesday night and helped Virginia beat Georgia Tech 62-56 in Atlanta. He didn’t play after intermission at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, but in five first-half minutes Sherrill made two shots, including a 3-pointer, and had a rebound.
“I was a little slow, I think, on my reactions defensively,” Sherrill said, “but my leg felt good. I felt good moving around, and I knocked down a couple shots, so it’s always good to get back in the flow of the game.”
Had Bennett called his name in the second half, Sherrill would have been thrilled. But when “guys are making a run, you gotta stay with the guys that have the hot lineup,” Sherrill said after the game. “I’m just happy to get out of here with a win.”
Three regular-season games remain for UVa (5-8, 14-13), starting Saturday afternoon against ACC foe Boston College (6-7, 16-11) at JPJ. How much Sherrill plays the rest of the season, Bennett said, will depend on his mobility and the matchups in any particular game.
“Hopefully as he gets better, he can carve out more time,” Bennett said.
After the initial injury, Sherrill said, he was unable to run and cut easily on his leg until the eve of the Miami game. He’s close to that point again, and UVa’s athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, is taking no chances this time.
“He’s making me wear the heavy armor,” Sherrill said.
Underneath his right sock, protecting the leg, is a fiberglass plate. “Just so any hit won’t break it again,” Sherrill said.
A graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, Sherrill has a double major, in economics and history, and plans to pursue a career in finance after graduation. So there’s more to Sherrill’s life than hoops, and he tries not to feel sorry for himself.
After he plays his final college game, Sherrill said, he may reflect on how his senior season might have turned out differently. For now, though, he’s determined to “stay focused on the moment, focused on the next day, just because there’s a lot of things that we can still do this season, and a lot of things that I personally can do,” Sherrill said.
“We’ve got three more regular-season games. They’re going to be tough, but they’re definitely winnable. And then the ACC tournament, where anything can happen. But if we finish off the regular season well, we can kind of assure ourselves of some type of postseason.”
When the season began, Bennett’s top three post players were Scott, Sherrill and 7-0 junior Assane Sene, whom Sherrill replaced in the starting lineup after UVa’s Nov. 18 loss at Stanford.
Scott, an all-ACC candidate, played only 10 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, and Sherrill has been in and out of the lineup. That’s meant a new role for 6-6 Joe Harris, who has been starting at power forward, and more minutes for Sene and 6-8 freshman Akil Mitchell.
“I think just due to the fact that we don’t have that many guys that are playing right now, I’m going to get some opportunities, so I’ve got to go in there and play well,” Sherrill said. “Coach knows what to expect from me. So if I do the things that I’ve always done well, he’ll put me in there.”
Sherrill’s commitment to the team has impressed Bennett. Even when he couldn’t play, Sherrill provided strong leadership from the bench and during practice. And he has rehabbed diligently to get back on the court, enduring an injury that would sideline many players.
“He’s pushing the envelope as far as he can when he’s out there, dealing with pain,” Bennett said. “He’s done that. He’s put himself out there when he knows he’s not as full strength. He says, ‘Coach, if it can help the team, I want to do whatever I can.’
“As a coach, I appreciate that.”