By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
When the Colonels won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Championship last weekend in Nashville, EKU coach Jeff Neubauer called it a total team effort.
From top to bottom, he said, including walk-on players Ryan Parsons and Tommy Matthews, everyone on the team had a big hand in the team’s success.
“You can’t just depend on one or two guys to win a championship, you have to have a team and I do think this group we have is a great team,” Neubauer said. “So many guys deserve credit for this championship. Ryan Parsons and Tom Matthews provide as much leadership on our team as anyone else, and they don’t even play much.”
It might surprise some people just how much of a role the two walk-ons have in the success of the basketball team, as well as how much respect their coaches and teammates have for Parsons and Matthews.
Both players had opportunities to attend smaller schools where they would have been able to play much more than they do at EKU. But they chose to come play for the Colonels, even though they knew it meant decreased playing time, but it was a role they were willing to accept.
“I wanted to challenge myself as much as possible and come and play Division I, Parsons said. “I knew coming down here what my role was going to be here and I was willing to sacrifice it for this very reason, to make the NCAA Tournament. No question about it, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
It’s that team-first attitude that makes the pair so popular with their coaches and teammates.
Because they are not on the floor very much, most of what they bring to the team goes on behind the scenes in practice and on the bench during games.
With all teams, one of the biggest roles walk-ons have is running the scout team in practices heading into upcoming games.
Parsons and Matthews do that very well. They run the opposing team’s offensive and defensive plays so the Colonels can practice against them and become familiar with what the teams like to run out of particular sets during the game.
Armed with that insight into the other teams, Parsons and Matthews are valuable assets on the bench during games.
In fact, Deverin Muff said Parsons was “like another coach out there for us.”
Because they know the other team’s plays so well, the two walk-ons are able to recognize the upcoming plays before they happen and help get their teammates into the proper positions on the floor.
“I talk to whoever scouted the upcoming opponent during the day before the game and they tell me what to look for, certain screens, certain types of actions to sniff out and let everyone know what’s coming,” Parsons said. “That’s one of the roles I’ve taken on and I really enjoy it. I just try to be as involved as possible on the bench.”
Anyone who has ever attended an EKU game knows that after a good play by the Colonels, Parsons and Matthews are always the first ones to jump to their feet clapping and yelling. And when one of their teammates comes out of the game, in foul trouble of after getting pulled by Neubauer, they are the first ones there to encourage them and pick them up.
Matthews said bringing energy to the team is his number one job.
“I know I wasn’t brought in to be a star player. I was brought in to be an energy guy, to help these guys in practice,” he said. “I’ve embraced that role and I’m just trying to take it to the next level, trying to do my best so they can be their best and take it to the next level.”
It might surprise a few people to learn that during the OVC Tournament championship game when Belmont had come back from a 10-point deficit to tie the game, that it was Matthews who senior Glenn Cosey credited for getting them refocused during the timeout before the pivotal run to retake the lead.
“When we got to the huddle for the timeout, before Coach Neubauer said anything, Tommy was the one who got us to calm down and regroup,” Cosey said.
Matthews said he just reminded them that they needed to keep working together like they did when they built the lead.
“I saw a little bit of frustration out there before the timeout and I was just telling the guys to settle down. That we’re here together and as a family, we’re going to get this win together. I just tried to calm them down,” he said. “I know my job as an energy giver is to try to keep them going and keep them positive.”
Neubauer said the Colonels are a very close team and it is players like Parsons and Matthews embracing their roles that has contributed to that.
“When you are recruiting and piecing together a team you’re not exactly sure which guys are going to play, which guys are going to come off the bench and which guys aren’t going to play. So the key is you have to have a great group of teammates so that everyone can accept their roles,” Neubauer said. “What we try to do is recruit great teammates and Ryan and Tommy are great teammates.”