March 7, 2015
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Rob Vozenilek’s first points in a UVa basketball uniform came Nov. 25, 2011, against Green Bay.
For Maleek Frazier, the wait was much longer, and it was starting to look as if he might never score as a Cavalier. The pressure mounted as his senior season progressed.
“Every game, whenever we had a chance to go in, everybody would always tell me I had to shoot the ball,” Frazier recalled this week at John Paul Jones Arena. “There was definitely a lot of anticipation for my [first] bucket.”
The wait ended Feb. 25 in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Frazier dropped in a floater in the final minute of Virginia’s 70-34 dismantling of Wake Forest. On the bench, the Cavaliers’ coaches beamed like proud parents, and players leaped to their feet to celebrate Frazier’s moment.
“How can you not?” head coach Tony Bennett said this week. “When you see guys that are part of something, that sacrifice, that don’t get a lot of notoriety, get a little taste of success, that warms everybody’s heart.”
On the nation’s second-ranked team, players such as Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon, Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes earn most of the headlines. But the behind-the-scenes contributions of UVa’s walk-ons — Kirven, Frazier, Vozenilek and Jones — are critical to the team’s success, too.
“They’re the true servants,” Bennett said. “Everybody has to be a servant here, but they’re like the worker bees. They do a lot of the stuff that doesn’t get noticed, whether it’s standing down so other guys can get more reps in shooting drills, or bothering their shots, or running scout-team defense and making it hard as possible [for UVa’s regulars]. They do anything without any regard for what they’re going to get out of it.”
Kirven, who will live on the Lawn in 2015-16, is a 6-9 junior from Raleigh, N.C. Vozenilek, a 6-2 senior whose brother Alec was a three-year starter at punter for UVa’s football team, is from Richmond.
Frazier, a 5-10 guard, is from Charlottesville, as is Jones, a 6-6 sophomore whose mother, Lisa, graduated from UVa, and whose father, Jeff, played and coached basketball at the school.
All four graduated from high schools in the state — Kirven from Woodberry Forest, Vozenilek from St. Christopher’s, Frazier from Covenant, and Jones from St. Anne’s-Belfield — and they periodically faced each other as prep standouts.
“I would just like to point out that my junior year, which was Caid’s senior year, I made All-Prep League, and Caid didn’t,” Jones said, smiling.
At UVa, they form the heart of the Green Machine, the scout team that is so named because of the green pinnies its members wear during drills. Its job is to help prepare the Cavaliers’ rotation players for upcoming games, and the Green Machine takes that assignment seriously, no matter what it entails in practice.
“They don’t worry about how anything looks,” Bennett said. “They just say, `What needs to be done?’
“They’re a huge part of this team. Their attitudes are significant for us, and they’re just enjoyable guys to be around. And that’s important too, that chemistry-wise they’re great and they’re hard-working and intense. And the nice thing is, they’ve all improved [as players]. They work hard in the weight room. They have some abilities and skills that I value.”
Associate head coach Ritchie McKay often supervises the Green Machine, and he’s “always our loudest proponent on the sideline,” Kirven said. “When we do well, he’ll celebrate with us and get excited, which is a lot of fun, having that coach that’s on our side.”
Equally rewarding is the respect they receive from the team’s scholarship players.
“That was one of the things I was worried about coming here,” Kirven said, “because I know people that had played at other schools — I’m not going to name the schools — where they just didn’t feel like a part of the team. They felt like they were almost like second-class citizens. And I really feel like with our team dynamic, our teammates don’t see us any differently, and that’s the most important thing for me. We have this team bond, and we’re all so close. That makes it so much more special than if we were just coming and practicing and leaving and not seeing the guys all the time.”
Virginia (28-1, 16-1) closes the regular season on the road, Saturday at 6:30 p.m., against 16th-ranked Louisville (23-7, 11-6) at the 22,090-seat KFC Yum! Center. The Cavaliers clinched their second straight outright ACC regular-season title Monday night at Syracuse, and Vozenilek was in for the final seconds at the Carrier Dome.
For walk-ons, such appearances are rewarding, but they also take satisfaction in the practice performances fans don’t see.
“We take a lot of pride in pushing the rotation guys,” Vozenilek said, “and when we play well, when Coach Bennett gets mad at the other guys [in practice], that’s sort of the ultimate compliment to us. And with the amount of work that we put in to push those guys, we reap the benefits when we’re up big and we get to go in in front of a sellout crowd and everyone wants to see us do well. It’s a lot of fun.”
The walk-ons followed different paths to the University.
“When I was going through the whole recruiting process,” Vozenilek recalled, “trying to figure out which I wanted to play, between football, basketball and lacrosse, and where I wanted to go, what level, I decided to just set aside sports and try to look at just the school and whether I liked the school academically and as an institution, and whether I would enjoy my college experience.
“I just decided that UVa would be the best spot for me. Once I decided to come here, I figured I would try out for the basketball team and see where that took me.”
At a tryout in the fall of 2011, Vozenilek impressed the Cavaliers’ coaches and was offered a spot on the team. He played in seven games as a freshman in 2011-12. He tried out again before the 2012-13 season, but wasn’t invited to join the team this time.
“It was actually what I thought was maybe my best tryout, but it was a numbers situation at that point,” Vozenilek recalled. “We had a ton of guys on the team. So I stayed in contact with the coaches, to see if they needed any extra bodies or anything like that.”
He tried out again in 2013-14 and rejoined the team, and another successful tryout followed last fall.
Kirven joined the program as a recruited walk-on, which meant he was assured a spot on the roster.
“I came and visited,” Kirven said, “and it was Rob’s first year. I got to talk to Rob [and fellow walk-ons] Thomas Rogers and Doug Browman, and I got to meet some of the [scholarship players]. From what they said about the experience and how well Coach Bennett treats us and how tight the team is, it really felt like a great place.”
Frazier grew up a UVa fan, and “I knew I wanted to be a part of the basketball program in some way, and so I tried out my first year,” he said. “I didn’t make it. Then they offered me a spot to be a manager. So I jumped at that opportunity, because I thought that just being part of the program in any sort of way would just be awesome. Just meeting the guys and the coaches, it seemed like a special group of people. And then second-year, I tried out again and I didn’t make it.”
And so Frazier remained a manager in 2012-13. His third tryout, however, earned him a place on the roster in 2013-14.
Jones looked at several other schools before concluding that UVa would his best option academically. Also, he said, “I knew that I would most likely have a chance to try out, so that was definitely a bonus.”
The `Hoos celebrated Senior Night on Feb. 28 against Virginia Tech at JPJ, and Atkins, Frazier and Vozenilek were honored in a ceremony before the game.
“That was pretty awesome,” Frazier said. “For Rob, Darion and me, to have our last home game in front of the sellout crowd, to see the strides we’d made over the four years and to leave on a good note that Saturday evening was just really cool.
“Just to see the support from all the fans for Rob and me, not just Darion, was really cool, too.”
The home finale came three days after Frazier’s historic basket at Wake Forest. As chance would have it, he’ll be attending graduate school there in 2015-16.
“That’s why he got his first bucket against Wake Forest,” Vozenilek said.
“He wanted to let `em know he was coming,” Kirven said.