Who is the real MVP?

Colin Ritsick

The saying “practice makes perfect” is usually tossed around when referring to the all-time greats who practice just as hard as they play – the Michael Jordan’s, Albert Pujols’ and J.J. Watt’s of the world.

But, what about the guys whose job is to make each practice, perfect?

The scout team. These are the guys who show up every day and bust their ass only to watch the game from a padded seat. These are the guys that are charged with getting the starters ready to play, each and every day. They run the same sprints, lift the same weights and wear the same jersey – but don’t get the same minutes.

Sophomore forward Scott Kelly, sophomore guard Grayson Clark, senior guard Zach Altany and senior guard D.J. Suter are all walk-ons. None of them have played in more than three games this season, but they all play a necessary part in the Eagles’ 16-5 success.

“What they do is they run the other team’s plays, they’ve got to run the other team’s defense,” head coach Mark Byington said, “…so they’ve got to be smart. They have to learn quickly and apply that in practice.”

Before Georgia Southern plays a game, the scout team has already gotten their mission from an assistant coach for the following game. They watch film and learn opponents’ tendencies. When the whole team gets together for practice the next week, the walk-ons have already learned a new offense and duplicate it to prepare the starters for the upcoming game.

“I feel like we play a huge responsibility just going at it every day to prepare the guys,” Suter said.

If these four players don’t set the tone for the energy of practice, they have not done their job. Communication is their most important task, and if they don’t talk and bring life to every practice, Byington makes sure they know, Kelly said.

“I think they like the fact that I’m going to treat them the same as our leading scorer,” Byington said. “I want them to work hard and get better. So, it’s not like there’s any separation between scholarship and non-scholarship guys.”

When Byington arrived in Statesboro for his first season as head coach last year, he only had nine scholarship players. He held walk-on tryouts with the intention of keeping two guys. That’s all he felt he needed.

“But after I ended up seeing these kids and I interviewed them, I asked them their life goals and I talked to them, and it went from two to four. A couple guys I just knew how bad they wanted to be a part of the team, and I couldn’t say no to them. I’m glad I kept them all,” Byington said.

He said that with open tryouts it is easy to want to keep the most talented players, which seems obvious. But knowing the talent that was already on the team, Byington looked first at the character of the players he would select.

“They have to be unselfish, they have to be a good student, they have to have high character and they have to bring energy,” Byington said.

Clark and Kelly both graduated from Milton High School where they won the 2012 5-A State Championship. Many players on Milton’s roster currently play D-1 basketball at other schools, so the pair said the transition to the college game was fairly easy. They’ve played together for six years and are enjoying their spots on the GSU roster.

“Everyone knows you’re on the basketball team. Family and friends come watch; playing sports is something not everyone gets to do in college,” Clark said.

Every team needs a player that isn’t afraid to crack some jokes and diffuse tension here and there. His teammates and coach say that Clark is that player.

“Grayson brings tremendous energy, he’s the life of the team,” Byington said.

When pointed out by his fellow walk-ons as the comedic relief, Clark simply shrugged and said, “I accept it.”

Altany, who was a two-time All-State guard at Bulloch Academy, likes playing in his hometown. He is a senior and knows his career is winding down.

“Play while you can, you’ve only got so many years,” Altany said.

Suter, on the other hand, wants to continue playing basketball after he graduates this year.

“I’ve got two more years of eligibility, so I want to get my Master’s and hopefully keep playing somewhere,” Suter said.

All of these guys recognize their roles, and love being a part of the team, especially when the team is winning.

“Not playing is never fun…but when you see the results, and the team is winning, it’s way better,” Clark said.

Altany has noticed a culture change since last year. He said that he feels like the whole program is more excited for each game, and students are a big part of that. The sellout-crowd against Louisiana-Lafayette hyped up the team, and the players appreciate that kind of support.