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ND Women’s Basketball

Walk-on players contribute to team’s success in quiet fashion

| Sunday, April 1, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There has been no storyline more overplayed over the course of Notre Dame’s season than that of the many injuries the squad touts like badges.

But there’s another story that goes hand-in-hand with the void the injuries left that has flown under the radar: the students who have stepped up to filled that void.

And while now they are student-athletes, at the beginning of the year, Maureen Butler, Kaitlin Cole and Nicole Benz were simply members of the Notre Dame student body.

All that changed when an email from Katie Capps, director of basketball operations, went out to the entire female undergraduate population Sept. 5, announcing the team would be holding walk-on tryouts.

“I saw the email and I was like, ‘Wow, can you believe it? There’s a tryout,’” Butler said. “And I was in my room with my roommate at the time and she was like, ‘Mo, you’ve gotta do it.’ And I was like, ‘Come on, that’s crazy,’ and she was like, ‘No, you gotta do it.’ And a couple of my good friends are on the men’s practice team that we practice with, too, and they were just saying, ‘Maureen, you have to do it.’ So I did it and went to the tryout, and it all just kind of happened from there.”

Zachary Yim | The Observer

Irish junior forward Maureen Butler speaks with the media in the Notre Dame locker room Saturday before Notre Dame’s matchup Sunday with Mississippi State in the NCAA championship.

Butler, a junior forward; Cole, a sophomore guard; and Benz, a freshman guard, were among the four students invited back to practice with the team after the initial tryout, and ultimately Cole and Butler were added to the roster.

“A lot of girls showed up and I was one of the four that got called back, so we practiced with the team twice, and then me and Maureen made it after the third practice,” Cole said. “I was so happy.”

The pair dressed for the first game of the season Nov. 1, a 108-40 win in exhibition action against Indiana University (PA), with each one seeing game action.

“[My first time on the court] was surreal,” Cole said. “I didn’t think I was there, in the moment. It was so much fun. First time I stepped out on the court, I was a little nervous, but all of them around me — they were all so supportive, it was fine. I loved it, it was so much fun.”

Zachary Yim | The Observer

Irish sophomore guard Kaitlin Cole has seen more minutes than the other two walk-ons this year, including 12 against Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

But while Cole and Butler were racking up minutes on the court and experience in practice, the third walk-on was doing something very different: laundry.

Benz came to Notre Dame with the intention of staying involved with the game she loved in whatever way she could, so when she received the email from Capps, she jumped at the opportunity to glean all the information she could about the legendary program.

“I know I’m not like a DI basketball player. I know that, but I decided to go just because I thought it would be cool to see where they practice or maybe like see the girls, or I don’t know,” Benz said. “And I just decided to go, give it a shot. … And then I became a manager, and that was really cool because that was something I wanted to do and that helped me meet Katie Capps, our director of operations, and kind of figure out what being a manager would be. And I started doing that and I loved it.”

Zachary Yim | The Observer

Irish freshman guard Nicole Benz began her experience with the team as a student equipment manager before joining the roster as a walk-on just before winter break.

But everything changed for Benz the week before winter break.

“The week before finals, I got called into the coaches’ offices and they asked me if I would be able to walk on and stay over winter break and practice with the team because the practice guys wouldn’t be there,” she said. “Honestly, at that point, I don’t think they had 10 people just to go five-on-five, so I said yes, and here we are a few months later.”

And while the walk-ons may not see much playing time, each one is aware of her role on the team.

“One quote I kind of like is, ‘Always be ready so you never have to get ready,’” Butler said. “Just kind of always trying to mentally prepare myself, know that there’s always a chance that I might get in, never just be too complacent, always be ready.”

That attitude has paid off for Butler, who — along with Benz — has typically only seen time on the floor at the ends of games.

Cole, however, has seen her minutes gradually climb as the season has progressed, as there are no healthy scholarship guards on the bench. She is aware of the important role she plays on the Irish roster as the next guard up.

“During the game, I’m always prepared,” she said. “I always prepare myself because I never know what’s going to happen if one of them gets hurt or if one of them gets fouled. Like in the Villanova game, I came in in the first quarter. I was really nervous, but they kept helping me. I’m just always ready to go whenever.”

And in that Villanova game — the second round of the NCAA tournament and a 98-72 win for the Irish — Cole played 12 minutes, seeing more time than even one of the healthy scholarship athletes on the roster. Cole, who has been dubbed the “hype man” of the team, also said she feels she adds more on the defensive end of the court, since she is less comfortable with the offense than the scholarship players.

But the stars of the squad are not the only ones who get the glory — Benz’s first career points were some of the team’s most celebrated of the year. She made a 3-pointer with 37 seconds remaining to cap scoring in the team’s 94-62 win over North Carolina on Feb. 1, and her teammates’ reaction was one for the ages, as the bench cleared and junior guard Arike Ogunbowale ran to pick her up, while the coaching staff was brought to its feet.

“That’s something I definitely never thought would happen,” Benz said. “Every time I’ve gotten in in the games — I guess we’re winning by a lot at the end — they’re always so encouraging, the coaches are saying, ‘Nicole, shoot if you’re open, you can do this,’ so just to see they were encouraging the whole time. And then to see their reaction after, that was almost worth more than that. This is such a great group of girls, and to be so accepting of a new player, a walk-on, from the very beginning is so special. I appreciate it a lot.”

But no matter what the walk-ons’ path to head coach Muffet McGraw’s squad has been, each one has one thing in common: Not one of them expected to find herself here, but each one is exceptionally grateful that she is.

“This whole experience is wild, I’m still kind of speechless,” Benz said. “Just getting the chance to cheer these girls on is just incredible.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a junior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident of McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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