When you hear about high school basketball players walking on to prominent Division I basketball teams, most of the time they come from established high school programs that compete at the Class 3A or 4A level.
Unless you’re Will Sanger.
The 19-year-old, who graduated from The Bear Creek School in 2007, became one of the few athletes from a school at the 1B/2B level to ever walk on to a collegiate Division I program when he committed to attending the University of Tulsa for the 2007-2008 academic year.
It’s been a long journey for Sanger, who says that basketball has been a big part of his life ever since he was a very young boy.
“I must have been in kindergarten when I started,” said Sanger, who was back home last week visiting family. “I was on Boys and Girls Club teams, and we had a hoop out by our barn and I’d always go out there and shoot, especially when I was upset about something. That’s what I did, that was my escape. I think I took one year off in first grade, and played through since then.”
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard has grown considerably since those days, and credits his experience playing for coach Scott Moe, who has turned around the Grizzly basketball program, as to what pushed him to take his game to the next level.
“My first two years we didn’t win very many games, and then Coach Moe came from a team that had beaten us by 40 points the last time they played us,” Sanger recalled. “He coached like some college coaches do. He’s just so detailed and focused, he had us in the gym throughout the summer, took us to a summer league, helped us find other places to play.
“Without Coach Moe, there’s no way I’d be playing at the University of Tulsa. He taught me how to keep working hard in basketball.”
In his senior year under Moe, Sanger led his team to a 16-7 record, was named to the first-team all-conference squad, and was named team MVP, averaging 13.8 points per game.
Although Sanger doesn’t consider himself a true Division I player since he wasn’t recruited and didn’t get any playing time last season, he still practiced and traveled with the team and used the 2007-2008 campaign as a learning experience, getting used to the vast differences in the high school and college games.
“One of the players there asked me the first day, ‘What’s different?’ and I said, ‘Everybody’s bigger.’ That’s the first thing you notice,” Sanger said. “The other thing is that everybody’s main goal in life really is to play basketball, they’re in the gym all the time, and the skill level and pace is way beyond (high school).
Sanger joined the program at a good time. After a rough 18-12 season that saw Tulsa just miss a berth into the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the team was invited to the College Basketball Invitational tournament (CBI) and made the most of it, sweeping through their bracket and defeating Bradley University in the best-of-three final. It was Tulsa’s first piece of postseason hardware since 2001, when the ‘Canes won the NCAA National Invitation Tournament.
“It was awesome… we thought we were going to be done playing when we found out we weren’t in the NIT,” Sanger said of his experience of being a part of the CBI championship team. “I think it’s pretty much changed the whole feel of Tulsa because before that it had been a disappointing season. We had known we were that good, but we didn’t do well until the conference tournament. When the CBI came we just kept winning. It just made us realize that we belonged in the postseason.”
SANGER’S BALANCING ACT
Like any student-athlete, Sanger, who is studying geophysics and is thinking about going into pre-med, has had to cope with the difficulty of balancing his athletics and academics.
He says the hardest thing has been to schedule required lab classes since most of them are in the early evenings when the team practices, and that with the rigorous time commitment required to both maintain grades and be a part of the basketball team, it has become a challenge to bear down and excel at both.
“The difficultly in balancing academics and athletics is not as much the time as much as the energy and focus,” said Sanger, who also lettered all four years in soccer and tennis at Bear Creek. “It’s just learning how to get a good night’s sleep and do things early in order to be ready for your tests and assignments.”
Besides taking a full slate of classes during the day, Tulsa’s demanding basketball program asks a lot out of each athlete.
“When I’m in Tulsa, we play six days a week and lift for an hour four times a week, and have a track day,” he said. “We’re basically in the gym four hours a day, every day, and we get a break on Saturday and Wednesday, and that’s just during the summer. We’re very committed.”
He added that during the basketball season, sessions are extended to five hours a day.
For now, Sanger is just content to be a part of what he considers a “great and very deep” team, with two superstar-level players, 7-foot junior center Jerome Jordan and junior guard Ben Uzo, as well as five incoming freshman. He knows his time will eventually come.
“I want to be able to knock shots down in practice, and (be ready) if I’m ever put into a game,” said Sanger of his goals for next season. “I just want to fit into the system, learn, and keep improving. I’ve improved all summer, and I’m just trying to learn to play with Division I-caliber players.”
Tim Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (425) 867-0353 ext. 5054.