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THE COLLEGES / JEFF FLETCHER

When the Going Gets Tough, Walk-Ons Get Northridge Going

February 15, 1996|JEFF FLETCHER

A reporter approached Rod Stinson on Tuesday and asked the Cal State Northridge basketball walk-on if he had a few moments to talk for a story.

"A story?" the 6-foot-7 junior forward shot back. "What kind of story?"

"One about you, and the other walk-ons," the reporter said.

Stinson still looked puzzled, unsure of just how to handle the situation. After some more cajoling, he was finally persuaded to spend a few minutes talking about himself.

Don't confuse his discomfort with the media for modesty, though. Just watch him and sophomore point guard Lucky Grundy play and you can tell they feel they belong on a Division I basketball court.

It's just a formality that they don't have scholarships.

Stinson, Grundy and freshman Walter Jefferson--who is more shy and plays less than the other walk-ons because he has two players in front of him--form a non-scholarship trio that has been surprisingly effective for the Matadors.

Several times this season, when the starters have played poorly, Coach Pete Cassidy has injected the walk-ons into the lineup to serve as a boost of adrenaline for the team, and it usually works.

"They may not have all the parts of the game together," Cassidy said, "but the one thing that they have, that everyone should but not everyone does, is tremendous hustle."

It's really just human nature. The starving-artist syndrome. Those who are in need the most will probably work the hardest.

So it is with walk-ons, in quest of the ultimate: a scholarship.

"You are already starting in a hole," Grundy said of walk-on status. "You've got to work your way up to ground level, and then above."

Northridge's walk-ons have done just that.

Grundy is averaging 11 minutes a game, Stinson 13 and Jefferson six. Stinson's and Grundy's playing time has steadily increased, while Jefferson's has remained relatively constant because he is stuck behind senior Rob Hill and junior Gerald Rhoden at off guard.

The three had their status elevated as a group on Dec. 22, when Northridge fell behind St. Mary's, 24-11. At that juncture, Cassidy sent them in and the Matadors immediately got back into the game with an 11-0 run.

They did much the same thing last week at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, turning a 25-point deficit into a more workable 12 with a 16-3 run in the final five minutes of the first half.

Most college basketball teams have some story of a walk-on who makes good--UCLA's Bob Myers has been in the headlines lately--but Northridge is a little different.

"Other teams have their stories," Northridge assistant Mike Johnson said, "but we have a trilogy."

*

Grundy, a Santa Monica High graduate, has been in the program the longest of the group, three years. He just showed up at a tryout in the fall of 1993 and the coaches couldn't get rid of him.

"He kept winning our conditioning [competitions]," assistant Tom McCollum said.

Grundy was a redshirt the 1993-94 season and played just 69 minutes in 11 games last season. His on-court accomplishments at Northridge were so limited his page in this season's media guide has a five-inch-by-three-inch block of blank space.

He's filling in next year's bio, though.

A quick, enthusiastic point guard, Grundy (5-10) has been the first off the bench when starter Trenton Cross needs a break. And he's not shy about asserting himself.

"I praise God because for all the [minutes] I get," Grundy said. "I wish it would be more, but then I'm glad it's at least what it is. Last year I [went into a game] hoping I would play. This year I expect to play. So it's a nice change."

*

Stinson played at Fremont High and Moorpark College, but an injury to his right knee cost him much of his sophomore season at Moorpark.

When no Division I schools came calling, Stinson called Cassidy and asked if Northridge had any scholarships left. Cassidy said no but told Stinson he was welcome to try out.

Stinson made the team but barely. He doesn't even have a bio in the media guide. And for the first month of the season no one really noticed. Stinson played a total of five minutes in two of the Matadors' first eight games, both at the end of blowout losses.

The St. Mary's game was his turning point. He played 21 minutes and grabbed five rebounds.

Stinson has brought the team aggression under the basket and tough defense. Hardly a game goes by that you don't hear him growling as he grabs a defensive rebound.

"I can be kind of an emotional player," he said. "Sometimes I have to get in a guy's face and say, 'I know you are better than this.' "

Added senior forward Ruben Oronoz: "Rod brings a lot to the team because he's real competitive."

*

Jefferson, who just started playing basketball his sophomore year at Imperial High, concedes he was a one-dimensional player, which is probably the reason he had no Division I offers.

But that one dimension--shooting--was enough to open the eyes of McCollum in a basketball class Jefferson took during the fall of 1994. McCollum was impressed and told Jefferson he ought to come to a tryout for Northridge's team.

Jefferson made the team as a redshirt. This season he remains pretty anonymous. In the Dec. 19 game against UC Santa Barbara, when Jefferson played nine minutes, he was called "Walter Johnson" by the public-address announcer as he lined up to shoot a free throw.

Still, coaches love him because he works hard in games and practices. And he does so for one simple reason: he wants a scholarship.

"Of course," he said. "Who doesn't?"

*

Northridge has three unclaimed scholarships available for next season, and Cassidy, of course, won't say if any of this year's walk-ons are in line for one of them.

Given the way Grundy, Jefferson and Stinson have played this year as hungry walk-ons, maybe Cassidy shouldn't give them scholarships.

Maybe he should take away everyone else's.

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