Seniors take different paths to excellence

SEATTLE - Lorenzo Romar doesn't have much use for tryouts. He had one, at Saint Louis, and it wasn't a positive experience. But as the 2009 season approached, Paul Fortier had an idea; with a dearth of big men available, he was often drafted into practice as a replacement. So why not hold a tryout at UW to help ease the crush?

"I was totally against it, because I've had bad experiences with guys wanting to walk-on, and once they get their foot in the door they get unrealistic expectations," Romar said on the eve of UW's 2012 Senior Day. This particular tryout would eventually find Brendan Sherrer on the roster.

October 22nd was the day, and Sherrer, who prepped at Archishop Murphy in Everett, decided this was his chance to fulfill a dream. Sherrer's freshman year was spent in the Dawg Pack, the UW students' section. The 6-foot-7 Sherrer stood out like a sore thumb, and every time he went to a game he saw himself not in the Pack, but down on the floor.

"I knew I could come out here and I was a big guy, so I could physically compete and push people around," Sherrer said this week on the eve of his final home game against Arizona on Saturday. "When you're in the Dawg Pack and you look down and you see them playing and you wish you could be there - and then you get the opportunity to do that, you don't turn that down."

But Sherrer's dream almost never happened. He saw the tryout ad in the Daily, and his mom helped him get the physicals done and everything in order. The day of the tryout, Romar showed up, not expecting to see much. According to him, he arrived and watched solemnly from the sideline, his arms crossed and his eyes downcast.

"There were a couple of guards that were okay," he said. "The difference between Brendan and the other guys that were trying out was size. We thought at 6-7, he could be around practice in a pinch, and instead of coach Fortier having to go out there himself, a guy like Brendan could get out there. It's hard to find bigger guys that can go out and challenge you in practice."

So Sherrer got his shot. And almost immediately after he earned his jersey, he almost lost it all. During his first practice, players like Quincy Pondexter and Darnell Gant were getting after him hard. "That was the hardest practice I've ever seen," Sherrer said. "I remember sitting there…I was making a whole bunch of strange noises and stuff, trying to catch my breath. I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?'

Romar felt his initial suspicions had been justified. "I just thought that he'll be on the team, but there wasn't a whole lot more he would do," he said of Sherrer and his future prospects. But then something strange happened; he kept growing, and he kept improving. In the beginning it was hard for Sherrer to keep up because of a lack of conditioning. He had trouble even making a layup at full-speed. But after a year, he could hold his own in practice. "Then he got better to where you could put him in a game and you wouldn't suffer," added Romar.

"It's gone by so quick," said Sherrer. "Basketball, having something to do every day, it's made everything go so much faster. It's been crazy."

Gant has had an extra year to enjoy his college experience. The senior from Los Angeles was the first Romar recruit at Washington who willingly made the decision to redshirt straight away. It didn't take him long to realize he was out of his element; like Sherrer, it was the conditioning that took an early toll.

"In high school I used to beat out the guards in running," he said this week. "I was the fastest big guy. When I got here and (Romar) was talking about all this running I was like ‘I can run for days, ' but I was wrong. We did some drills in the East gym and by the end I was begging for my asthma pump. I wasn't physically ready for what we were about to go against. That's when the Pac-10 was the best conference in the nation. There was a lot asked of myself and with these guys beating me up in practice I knew it wasn't going to happen in the games. That just helped me who I am today – helped me be stronger and mentally stronger."

But as the years have progressed, the forward from Crenshaw High has become a shining example for the 'college experience' at Washington. "He's gone through a lot here," Romar said of Gant. "He's a great example of what college can do for an individual. Not just the diploma, but the culture, things you learn, experiences you go through, ups and down. You can grow up and learn a lot through college, in the classroom and away from the classroom."

Not only has Gant spoken as a student-athlete rep in front of the faculty - something Romar said he's not sure he could have handled that at his age - but he's also the Hoop Dawgs' renaissance man. At last year's Basketball Banquet, they decided to have a piano player in the lobby to greet family members and friends as they made their way to the proceedings.

The piano player was Darnell Gant. He wouldn't have looked out of place at Nordstrom's on a holiday weekend.

"Back then I was more conservative where people didn't know about me," he said. "They thought they knew me and had an idea of who I was, but I felt like through this time they finally got a feeling of who I am and who I represent and I'm just a different guy – a different character from when I came here. Back then I was irresponsible, a knucklehead, but now I'm more mature and I see life in a different perspective now."

The third member of this Senior Day is a player the Huskies desperately needed. "I wouldn't have said that this is what our senior class is going to look like when we're done," admitted Romar. In 2008, the signing class included Scott Suggs, Isaiah Thomas, Elston Turner and Tyreese Breshers, and now all but Breshers have either left, or are currently redshirting. The 6-foot-6 power forward from Price High School in Los Angeles had to retire in September of 2010 due to an undisclosed medical condition, but that hasn't stopped Romar from following through on his promise.

"The commitment we made to Tyreese was that even though he would never be able to play again, he was going to be as much a part of this team as if he was playing," said Romar. "We have pictures of our guys in the hallway with their headshots, and his picture is right there with the rest of them. That's the commitment we made to him, but at the same time - he has, in return, shown great leadership and has been very helpful for us.

"He would have been a huge, huge part of that senior class. We really believe he would have been an All-Conference guy."

That left Gant and Sherrer, the ultimate odd couple; the strangest of bedfellows. One has scored 562 career points, the other 11. While one watched the games from the stands when he got to UW, the others watched from the end of the bench.

What a difference a few years has made.

"They are only opposite because they have completely different backgrounds," Romar said of the two. "But they are very similar in that they have great character, they are fun to be around, they are selfless. They share a lot of those same traits. They've been so coachable and so willing to do whatever is best for the team. I think that's been, for the both of them, that's been great for the group."

So now only two questions remain; will they start? And will they cry?

"I'm still debating right now," Romar said when asked about the first question. "But there's something about later on in life you can remember that your name was called in that starting lineup. It's something that may seem very small, but to get that opportunity can be pretty special."

When Romar was an assistant coach at UCLA under Jim Harrick, they used to always start the seniors. On top of that, it never had a negative impact on the game. In fact, there's a school of thought that says starting the seniors can often help because of the emotion involved. "The crowd is going to go nuts regardless on this one," Romar said, matter-of-factly. "At that White-Out at Arizona, it wasn't Senior Night."

Romar was quickly reminded of what Lute Olson told him before the Huskies played Arizona on their Senior Day one year. "This is Senior Night," he said emphatically. "We never lose on Senior Night."

The Wildcats lost that day, showing the emotion of the moment can dissipate in record time. But it still matters, and that's what leads to tears.

Every year players talk about how they'll walk on the court - with their family around them - and try their best to maintain a brave face. And every year they ultimately break down, humbled by the enormity of the moment, the culmination of everything that has come before them - and also the thought of what lies ahead.

"He's definitely going to cry," freshman forward Desmond Simmons said of Gant. "When he sees other people crying it's going to make him cry."

"That's not something I plan to do," said Gant when asked the same question. "I feel like I'll get emotional, I don't know exactly what'll happen. I can't say."

"I already told (Gant), 'Don't be afraid to cry," Romar said. "Don't let anybody talk you out of not crying, if that's how you feel'. I'm going to be fighting the tears back myself."

The only thing that the seniors want is a win on Saturday. If it means tears at the beginning, middle, or end of the day - they'll take it. After a victory, all the rest would be rendered meaningless - and that's what this class will ultimately be judged by. This group has a chance to do things that will leave an indelible mark on the Washington record book. Gant has an opportunity to become the first player at Washington to make it to four-straight NCAA Tournaments. And if Sherrer takes part in another win Saturday, the Huskies' 'Human Victory Cigar' will have gone undefeated in his collegiate career. It would be 30 games played in and 30 games won.

A Senior Day win would cap off a fairy-tale ending for a class that has overachieved and excelled in everything they've done at Washington. They weren't heralded coming to Montlake, but they will leave UW as not only a credit to the basketball program, athletic department and university - but also as a credit to themselves.

It's the highest honor possible.


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