Walk-ons fill out team rosters — this spring especially

When Tucker van Eck ’21 came to the College as a first-year, he did not envision himself playing golf for the next four years. 

“Walking on was never something I imagined or ever thought of at all, not even once,” said the senior squash player, who joined golf in his sophomore year. “But now that I’m leaving, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”

Walk-on athletes like van Eck who joined a team that they were not initially recruited for have long played an important role for the Ephs. That is especially true this year. Many students, including student-athletes, have been enrolled remotely or taking time off for the semester or even all year. The recent removal of 120 students from campus in the wake of the illicit gathering at Wood House has further depleted some rosters. With spring competition rapidly approaching, several teams have looked to take walk-ons from fall or winter sports to fill the gaps. 

Tyler Spiezio ʼ22 was one of them. Spiezio, who also plays football, walked onto the baseball team after some team members were moved to remote learning a few weeks ago. “I used to play baseball when I was little, and I have a lot of friends on the team,” Spiezio said. “I want to help out Williams and I want to compete, so I figured I’d play.”

Many walk-ons are, like Spiezio, recruited athletes who decided to try their hand at another sport. Van Eck came to the College as a recruit for men’s squash but walked onto the golf team late in his first year, when a few players left the team for various reasons. In need of new players to fill in the spots, the golf team invited van Eck to walk on. 

With friends already on the team and substantial experience playing golf in high school, making the jump to college golf was not a difficult decision for van Eck. “I really love golf, and it didn’t really take much convincing once the spot was open,” he said.  

Robin Kitazono ʼ24 is another dual-sport athlete who made a similar decision. A hockey recruit who walked on to women’s lacrosse this spring, Kitazono was also motivated by her prior experience in the sport. “I played [lacrosse] from when I was like 13 until Grade 10,” she said. While Kitazono had considered walking on last fall, the opportunity did not arise until this spring season due to COVID-19 restrictions. “It had been an option that I was open to doing before coming, and then I guess the opportunity just presented itself a lot more easily than expected,” Kitazono said.

Not all walk-ons have prior experience in the sport that they are looking to join. Lauren Fossel ’22, a cross country runner who is now also on the crew team, said that she discovered her interest in rowing while taking a P.E. class last winter, where she was first introduced to practicing on ergs, indoor rowing machines. 

“I had no experience rowing competitively before,” she wrote to the Record. “In fact, I’d been on the erg only about 3 times before I joined the crew team (and had never rowed on the water)!”

Aside from her interests in the sport, Fossel also mentioned the social draw of joining another team as an important motivating factor. “I wanted to join the crew team just to try something new and to be a part of another team atmosphere,” she wrote. 

Her teammate Lillian Bates ’23, a Nordic skier who also walked onto women’s crew this spring, agreed. Bates, who rowed competitively in high school, said that she had always considered rowing in college in addition to skiing, but the pandemic had prevented her from doing so last spring. This spring, however, she saw the opportunity to row with a team once more. 

“As I was thinking about whether I wanted to be on campus this spring, I decided that joining the crew team could be a really cool way to make this spring special, despite everything that is making it a hard and unusual semester,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that, if I decided to come to Williams this spring, I was going to have a fulfilling, busy semester with sufficient social interaction and opportunities to meet new people. Crew seemed like the perfect way to combine these goals with my passion for activity and love of rowing.”

While many walk-ons have previous experience on varsity teams, transitioning to the rigor of college competition in another sport can be a challenge nonetheless. 

“There obviously was a skill gap between me and some of those guys, and I still haven’t eclipsed all of that,” van Eck said. “When you’re not as good as some of the other guys, it can be frustrating at times. But that’s something you know going into it… You didn’t spend as much time as they did in high school or before playing that sport.”

“You can’t just be lazy one day,” he continued. “You have to be really structured and be dedicated to following your schedules.”

For Kitazono, her experience in hockey helped her transition to playing lacrosse. The two sports share similar styles and techniques: both feature fast-paced attacks with short intervals of rest, as well as focusing most motion in the arms and wrists. “Especially in Canada, it’s really, really common [that] you play both,” she said. “There’s definitely a lot of wrist work and stuff… I don’t know if [the] skills are directly transferable, but I know they both could help each other.”

Balancing two separate varsity sports can be a challenge for even the most motivated of athletes. Even in the offseason, there are team practices and lift sessions, so taking on a commitment to an additional varsity sport can feel overwhelming.

“My first full season … where I was on both teams and [had] to juggle and practice both was my sophomore fall, and that was the most mentally difficult and academically difficult semester I’ve had at the school,” van Eck said. “It was definitely a difficult transition, but I got through it and figured out what works for me.”

Though Kitazono anticipates a busy schedule during her upcoming lacrosse season, she believes that COVID restrictions could end up lightening her workload. “I’m pretty sure the way that COVID rules are working right now, once I switch to lacrosse, there’s not a lot of hockey stuff that I will be doing just because of the pods and stuff,” she said. 

However, Kitazono also plays on the women’s ultimate frisbee team, another commitment for her to manage. “Balancing lacrosse and ultimate might be a lot harder,” she said.

While prior athletic experiences help ease the transition into a new sport, fellow teammates and coaches also help with settling in on a new team. According to van Eck, his coaches made his transition onto the team “incredibly fluid and easy.”  

“Josh Hillman [head coach of men’s golf] is a fantastic guy and only wants the best for everyone, both academically and athletically,” van Eck said. “He wants everyone to be the best person they can be in the world at large.”

On the athletics side, Bates said that her coaches prepared her well as she dove into a completely new sport by providing her with directions, advice, and access to equipment. “Coach Kate [Kate Maloney, head coach of women’s crew] got me set up and up to speed right away on my first day of practice, giving me all the gear I needed and helping me understand the rhythm of practice and her training philosophy,” Bates wrote. “Kate and the team have made it clear to me that I am welcome on [the team], and I am looking forward to contributing to this team as best as I can this spring!” 

Athletic performances aside, becoming a new member of a team also entails social integration. The unique practices within each team could make the first few days difficult, according to Bates. “All teams have specific traditions, lingo, and routines that can make following along as a newcomer a little tricky,” she said. 

While it could be challenging to settle into the team immediately after joining, teammates play an active role in bringing walk-on athletes into the team dynamic, according to Fossel. 

“I joined at a pretty random time, so everyone else was pretty settled in terms of their training and their friend groups,” she said. “Everyone was so welcoming, however, and people really made an effort to make me feel included.”

Despite starting with less experience than his recruited teammates, differences in skill does not lead to a division in the team, according to Spiezio. “Everyone’s been super supportive,” he said. “Even though I’m not the best player in the world, everyone wants me to do well.” 

From the coaching perspective,  more depth on the roster and on the field is helpful at a time when some athletes are studying remotely, according to head coach of baseball Bill Barrale.

“It just makes practice much easier,” he said. “We can make the flow [of practices] better, we could maybe play a game against each other… [If] you don’t have enough guys — and that’s kind of what we went through in the fall — when guys are remote and trying to practice, it just makes the logistics of practice much harder.”

The walk-on athletes themselves seek the chance to practice and compete through joining a new team as well. “The possibility of exposure to a competitive outlet gets me really stoked,” Bates said. “I think all athletes are missing the competitive atmospheres that we thrive on and, assuming the season can be carried out safely, this spring should bring an exciting return to that side of sport.”

In spite of the many challenges, the walk-on athletes whom the Record interviewed are glad they took the risk. The experience of walking onto the golf team has defined his student experience at the College, van Eck said as he reflects upon his experiences playing golf.

“It was just one of those life moments that kind of falls in your lap, and you later realize how impactful and how awesome that was for you,” he said.