By Tom Benoit
October 4, 2011 11:23 PM

One is a Senior who led the state of Florida in assists his sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. He turned down an opportunity to go to Florida State and be involved in an ACC basketball program in favor of going to Siena. The other is a sophomore from NYC who never sat the bench in high school and was recruited by multiple schools in his region.  To fans these are the guys many love to see on the floor.  They electrify the crowd as they approach the scorer’s table. We are not refering to Rakeem Brookins, but two players that are often overlooked members of the team.They are the walk ons, the non scholarship players, they are Conner Fenlon and Steven Cruz. Although they are rarely interviewed, and point out that they are ok with that, they looked forward to the opportunity to sit down with us last week as they have plenty to say and stories to tell. Their stats are not impressive, in fact they are almost non existent, but to not look farther into these young men and their stories would be missing out.Their roads to Loudonville are interesting ones.

Conner is from Tampa, Florida, a coach’s son who was the second best player on his high school team. His role was to get the ball to the number one scorer on the team, a task he performed well as evidenced by his leading the state in assists for 3 straight years. This earned enough recognition to create the opportunity to play for multiple schools in his area. Despite those offers, primarily on the D3 level, Conner had resigned himself to ending his playing days at the end of his high school career and focusing on coaching as he was set to become a team manager at Florida State.

Those plans changed however due to Siena’s good fortune that year. After qualifying for the NCAA tournament, Siena was assigned to play in Tampa. Conner’s dad, being a local high school coach, would serve as a host for a practice facility to one of the teams assigned to that region. Conner had hoped for such schools as Clemson or Villanova, but his dad insisted on hosting Siena. Connor was less than thrilled with the idea, as he said, “I had never even heard of Siena.” What Conner didn’t know was his collegiate plans were destined to change with that decision.

“I went to every practice they had there, and was shooting one day by myself in the gym and Coach Mac came in and said, ‘do you want to walk on?’, and i was in disbelief. I never thought I’d play basketball again after high school.” Said Fenlon, “My dad spoiled me with this one, its been the best four years of my life.”

For Steven his road to Siena was a little different. He knew of Siena and had an interest in the school from an academic standpoint. Although he had interest from schools to play basketball, he was drawn to Siena and planned to remain involved in hoops by being a team manager. He began working out with the team in order to begin building relationships with them. He was a little upset that his playing days were over, however, he saw new hope when an email was sent out announcing a tryout for walk-ons.  After some good words were put in by his high school coach from LaSalle Academy to Coach B., who he knew  from 5 Star camp, and showing his ability to fit in well with the team,  he was given the opportunity to walk on. This was an opportunity he jumped on enthusiastically.

For both Conner and Steven securing their spot on the roster did not mean the rest would be easy, far from of it. Each of them recalls a rude awakening the first time they stepped on the court with their new teammates.  For Conner he tells of his first pickup game and drawing the task of guarding Kenny Hasbrouck.

“It didn’t go well,” said Conner. “I had no confidence. From how i play now to how i was freshmen year are totally different. I would never shoot the ball. I’d never have confidence. I’d always get scored on because they were a lot bigger than me. I’ve gained about 35 pounds since getting here. Kenny just put me in the post. It wasn’t even fair.”

Following the experience, Kenny gave Fenlon some friendly advice.

“Yo, you need to get bigger, hit the weight room.” Kenny said, as Conner remembers it. “One supporter of mine has been Kenny, he’s always supported me through it all, and Ryan, probably my biggest two supporters.”

Through hard work and an assists from Muscle Milk Conner put on the weight and grew his confidence and game.

Steven also tells of and interesting first pick-up game. Having faced a challenge all his life due to a lack of height, he decided to face things head on, finding himself in a bit of a mismatch against 6’ 8’ Brandon Walters.

“Brandon had it in the post and he dribbled it once. When Brandon dribbled it came up to my eye level. I reached, and instead of reaching for the ball i actually reached for his eye and i poked him,”  said Cruz. “As soon as it happened i was like ‘oh man, this guy is like 6’8″ about 200 lbs and he’s gonna kill me.’ He just walked off the court and went straight to the training room. I’m scared i hurt him. I didn’t want to see Brandon afterwards. Brandon is a scary guy, he’s huge.”

Despite this mishap Steven hung in there. He later faced another challenge in guarding Kyle Downey who he described as “a monster”. After being pushed around and out muscled for a bit he hustled to get back on a break and found himself beneath Downey who proceeded to put down “a legit reverse dunk” on Cruz. With a firm placement of the ball on his chest as recognition for having fouled Kyle in the process, Steven was again reminded what he had gotten himself into.

“I was a bit nervous that day. I didn’t want to shoot after that,” Steven said. “I didn’t want to guard Kyle Downey too close. I was scared of him. But now, i’m used to playing with these guys.”

While he has had his confidence rocked at times in practice he has continued to stay motivated and speaks fondly of going at Ryan Rossiter in the post despite an outcome of having his shots blocked into the bleachers. Life as a walk-on poses great challenges, but it rewards Conner and Steven at the end of the day by granting them the knowledge that they are hanging in there with Division 1 athletes.

Through it all, despite minimal playing time, both walk-ons agree that they made the right choice. They love their school and their team, and speak fondly of the area and the fans. Despite having to face their share of “people hating on us and giving us weird looks ” there are no hard feelings. With encouragement from team mates, family, coaches and former Siena players, they continue to love their role. For Conner, who wants to one day be a college coach, he appreciates his relationship with Assistant Coach Craig Carter, who involves him in reviewing tape, and breaking down plays. He explains that for a walk-on your relationship with the coaching staff is key.

“I think thats the most important thing, us and the coaches,” explained Fenlon. “They didn’t recruit us. They didn’t know much about us before we got here… You have to be on eye to eye level with the coaches or you could see your way out quick.”

Conner went on to explain how important it is to blend in with the team.

“When we get into practice there is no let down. Give it your best. You guys are here just like them, know the plays, just no let down when you get in. You gotta hit your free throws, just like these guys. You gotta be running with them or you’ll be running by yourself.”

Steven points to his relationship with the coaches as being critically important, and how he appreciates coach B checking in with him about his school work, and how coach Carter serves as a mentor to him, checking in with him to make sure he keeps working hard, and helps to keep the team together as one. He encourages him to keep pushing himself even when he is most tired, and says that is what he has been doing his whole life, “just to prove people wrong”.

As a senior, Conner says when he considers the possibility that he may have gone to Florida State to serve as a team manager, he is in disbelief to think of all he would have missed out on. As a huge college basketball fan he looks at Siena’s upset win over Ohio State as the best thing he has experienced.

“No one thought we were going to beat them. Everyone always talks about being in Ohio, but we were really in Ohio and we only had a little section.  It just shows you that all you have to do is do what the coaches ask you to do, you don’t listen to anyone else, you can do it.”

Conner said that this was a huge lesson he learned from coach Mac. “If you went away from the game plan you could lose …but if you stick to it, you can come out on top.” This is a  lesson he is sure to carry with him in his future as a coach. He also finds it very rewarding to see his team mates living out their dreams as professional basketball players. He talks to Ryan Rossiter nearly everyday, and describes him also as one of his biggest supporters.

For Steven the coolest thing he has experienced so far is last year’s win at home vs. Georgia Tech.

“Thats like the best Christmas present for me,” said Cruz. “Before we actually went out there they were just like, ‘yeah let’s get these guys out of here.’ They’re like the big conference school, we’re the underdogs although we’re at home.”

He lights up as he describes what it was like watching his team mate Ryan Rossiter go to work against the major conference opponent.  For both of these guys hearing how psyched they are at watching their team mates succeed, illustrates that they both are truly all you could ask for in a team mate.

They don’t take their spots on the team for granted one bit. In larger schools like a Syracuse, coaches may carry as many as 6 or 7 walk-ons. At Siena being a small school, coaches tend to only have one or two. Tryouts are held on an as needed basis, and may not even come every year. When they do as many as 25 hopefuls may turn out for that one coveted spot. Once chosen the real hard work begins. The life as a D 1 student athlete is not easy. There is little free time away from the conditioning, strength training, practices, games and road trips, along with the obligations in the classroom of homework, papers, and exams. With an NCAA appearance, players may be away for close to a week, all while balancing their school work. Conner explains that this is all great preparation for after college because, “if you can do it here, you can do it in the real world.”

They love their school. Conner, a Economics major enjoys the small campus and its proximity to the airport since he is so far from home. He enjoys the change of seasons and loves the snow, although his car doesn’t move during the winter because he can’t drive in it. He describes his first time coming to the area as he came from the airport and saw cows, he knew this is where he wanted to live. He hopes to live in this area after graduation. In his spare time he enjoys eating at his favorite restaurant Paesan’s, talking with family, scouring the websites studying basketball and spending time with his girlfriend. He said keeping up with studying is crucial because once the season comes you have to be ready to go.

Steven also loves Siena’s small campus, he enjoys being outside of the big city life, and was drawn to a more diverse population than what he grew up, coming from a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. He is a business major who loves working with numbers. Although he said he rarely has spare time he loves to eat at 5 Guys, and to be outdoors. He also likes to webcam with his cousin who always motivates him. However, foremost he is a self proclaimed mama’s boy and as an only child he loves talking to his mom just to hear her voice. He smiles when he describes how he looks forward to away games against Manhattan and Iona as it allows his mom to come see Siena play.

Both guys are very much looking forward to this season. Steven says although many may see them as underdogs, to him the gold is still at Siena and they are still champions. Steven talks of the great speed and quickness of this years team.

“We’re really fast. Its gonna be really hard for teams to catch up to us. We’ve got Rahk Brookins who’s a jet. We’ve got Evan who’s just 100 miles an hour, just really fast. We’ve got Davonte who’s also fast. He’s got a quickness thats just really unique, it reminds everyone of Kenny, he always finds his way around the basket.”

He says everyone can do a little bit of everything and if they put it all together they will prove the doubters wrong and they will be alright. He looks forward to returning to Madison Square Garden where he played once before while in high school. He was so nervous then he only scored one point.

Conner says this season will be a whole new game for the Saints.

“It’s a different team. We’re not going to be throwing the ball into Ryan the whole game. I see it good for us pressing wise. As fast we are, with our guards, they can get into the passing lanes, maybe run a trap, I think our defense will really be the best part of our team this year.”

Conner went on to explain the best time to get someone is when no one thinks you can. In addition to the Iona game at MSG, he is looking forward to the UMass game at Springfield as it will give them the opportunity to play at the site of this years MAAC tournament and get a feel for it. He is also looking forward to the Florida Atlantic game as it will give his family the opportunity to see the team play.

Hearing the stories of Conner Fenlon and Steven Cruz is inspiring. Their enthusiasm for Siena basketball and their true sense of team is refreshing in times when we are exposed to so many athletes who are focused on personal accomplishments. One can not help but route for these kids, and there is no question that with their determination they will succeed.

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