Profile: Freshman Walk-On Sutter Relishes His Opportunity
Jan. 31, 2012
All Sammy Sutter wanted was a chance. The freshman UIC men's basketball player from Bartlett, Ill., could have attended a number of Division II or Division III schools to further his education and college basketball career. Instead, he chose to walk-on at UIC, because as long as he could remember, he wanted to prove that he could be successful at the highest level. Two-thirds into the Flames' 2011-12 season, that opportunity may have come even quicker than Sutter thought. And that's fine by him.
Sutter nearly single-handedly transformed the boys' basketball program during his career at South Elgin High School from 2008-2011. He led the Storm to the school's first-ever regional championship. He earned All-State accolades as a senior, and was a two-time All-Daily Herald selection. But the Division I offers never came.
During his senior year, the opportunity to walk-on at UIC was presented to Sutter. As a junior, he had played against current UIC Associate Head Coach Al Biancalana's team while he was the head coach at suburban York High School, and raised eyebrows with his play. Sutter, during his senior year of high school, stayed in touch with Biancalana after he accepted a position on head coach Howard Moore's staff.
Meanwhile, there was already a comfortable familiarity with UIC and its athletic program for Sutter and his family. Sammy's brother Zak attended UIC, and his cousin, Nick, was a former letterwinner on the men's soccer team. After weighing his options and doing some soul searching, Sutter decided to take a leap of faith. He passed on the flurry of Division II and Division III offers, and officially joined the UIC men's basketball team as a preferred walk-on in May 2011.
"Ever since I was a kid, it has always been my dream to play college basketball," said Sutter. "I felt a little bit disrespected after my senior year (at South Elgin). I wasn't getting the (recruiting) looks that I thought I deserved, and was all over the place at that time when it came to making a decision. Eventually, at the end of my high school career, I decided to accept the challenge to walk-on at UIC; I wanted to prove everyone wrong."
Life as a walk-on in Division I college basketball isn't easy. More times than not, they are permanently slotted onto the "scout team," and practice against the players in the regular rotation, often mirroring the team's upcoming opponent. Often times, they aren't even allowed to travel with the team on road trips. When walk-ons do get the rare opportunity to play, it is usually when the final outcome of the game is already decided, with the lead or deficit being deemed all but insurmountable.
But walk-ons are presented the same challenges as student-athletes that are on full scholarship. They are expected to balance their academics and the daily grind of practice, and to maintain a positive attitude within the team. All with the realization that they may never get a chance to directly contribute to the team's success on the court. In many cases, they feel undervalued and underappreciated.
To say that Sutter's story is the exception to the rule would be a huge understatement. On Jan. 21 against Valparaiso, one of the top teams in the Horizon League, Sutter entered the lineup less than 10 minutes into the game, playing "valuable minutes" for the very first time. Leading up to that point of the season, Sutter had only seen 10 total minutes of action, all late in game, when the aforementioned outcome had already been decided.
Against the Crusaders on that Saturday afternoon at the UIC Pavilion, Sutter showed he wasn't afraid of the bright lights. Occupying the role of the back-up point guard, he ran the offense with smoothness, and made his first shot, drilling a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game, 22-22, mid-way through the first half. He played only five minutes in the contest, but proved he could compete and be an opportunistic member of the rotation.
Five days later at Wright State, Sutter played another four minutes, and scored two points after converting a driving layup during a 6-0 first-half UIC run. But where he made his biggest impact to date was in the Flames' heartbreaking loss at Detroit on Jan. 23.
Sutter played a season-high 17 minutes, pouring in 12 points on four field goals, including a pair of three-pointers. Mid-way through the second half, as UIC was completing a spirited comeback, Moore told junior co-captain Daniel Barnes, who was getting a breather on the bench, to sub-in for Sutter. Barnes' response to Moore: "Coach, let's leave Sammy in. He's hot tonight." Sutter went on to play deep into the second half, helping the Flames pull within one possession on several occasions before ultimately falling short.
"Sammy is the epitome of what a great walk-on should be," said Moore. "He comes to work every day in practice, picks his teammates up, and the only thing that matters to him is winning. He's been an absolute pleasure to coach, and he is relishing his opportunity right now. We've been in need of some extra energy off the bench, and he's provided that. He played a great game at Detroit the other night, and I expect him to continue to get better. He's going to have a very rewarding career at UIC."
Sutter, who never played point guard in high school, attributes his surprising insertion into the lineup to his hard work in practice, and the support he has been receiving from his teammates.
"I've just been going hard every day in practice, and doing my best to occupy my role for this team," Sutter said. "Gary (Talton) and Greg (Travis) have been helping me a lot, just giving me pointers in practice about how to be an effective point guard. Danny (Barnes) has been great for me during games, helping me be in the right spots to make plays. Everyone has been great."
Whether or not his number is called upon down the stretch of the season, Sutter says he will continue to stay ready, and do his part to contribute to Moore's ongoing vision to rebuild the Flames' program.
"I've got confidence in my game; I know I can play at this level," said Sutter. "I'm going to continue to work hard and I'm going to get better. That's what keeps me going; I know I'm not just out there to fill a void. When I'm in the game, I'm going to continue to take what the defense gives me and do whatever I can to help this team win. That's what means the most. As long as this team is improving and we're getting wins, I'm perfectly fine with the situation, even if I'm not playing."
Sutter admittedly says even he is surprised that he's gotten an opportunity to contribute during his first year in the program. As he indicated upon committing to UIC, his goal is to one day earn a scholarship. But that isn't occupying his mindset as the Flames enter the stretch run of the Horizon League season.
"That's still the goal, to be a full scholarship athlete," Sutter said. "I'm going to continue to work hard, and hopefully it works out. But I'm really just happy to be a part of this team. I'm going to grow as a player as this program continues to grow."
The Flames will open a two-game homestand by entertaining Youngstown State at the Pavilion Thursday night beginning at 7 p.m. CST. UIC will host first-place Cleveland State prior to the Super Bowl, Sunday at 1 p.m.