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Walk-on the line

Three weeks ago, Jonathan Willis was a junior at USF – just a regular student – concerned with his grades and making it to classes on time. The closest Willis ever got to a basketball court was as a member of Da Bullz, the all-male practice squad that helps out the women’s basketball team.

But all that changed Tuesday night when Willis donned the No. 1 jersey and stepped onto the court at Pharmed Arena – the home site for Florida International University – as a member of the men’s basketball team.

“When I first got onto the floor at FIU, I really felt like a kid in a candy shop,” Willis said. “I feel like I’m just living the dream; it’s something that many people dream about, and I’m actually doing it.”

Although Willis failed to register a statistic, he logged three minutes of game time and helped relieve some of the players who were exhausted in the double-overtime game.

But helping his team isn’t anything new for the junior guard.

Willis, who played guard at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, came to USF with desires of playing basketball in some capacity.

But after failing to make the men’s team last year, Willis missed – because of eligibility issues – the open tryout in the beginning of this season.

“Coming here was one of my goals to try to walk on and make this team,” Willis said. “It was a tough feeling. I mean, I worked out so hard in training, but things didn’t quite work out. But I didn’t give up.”

Willis’ next move was to join the practice squad to help the women’s team.

The women’s team, which has had injury problems with its two starting guards – Rachael Sheats and Tristen Webb – needed the extra players to prepare for its’ tough non-conference schedule.

Coach Jose Fernandez was especially impressed with Willis.

“Jonathan was a hard worker,” Fernandez said. “For somebody to come out and give up his time, it really helped our basketball team out.”

Due to injuries to guards Collin Dennis and Chris Howard and the dismissal of shooting guard

David Sills, men’s assistant coach Greg Gary came by the women’s basketball practice to meet with Fernandez.

As much as the women’s team will miss Willis in practice, coach Robert McCullum is happy to have the extra assistance.

“It ensured us that we will always have 10 guys for practice,” McCullum said. “It’s improved our numbers.”

The players echoed the need for walk-ons and how much the Bulls will need players such as Willis to contribute.

“People keep going down with injuries and that means other people have to step up,” guard Chris Capko said. “When Jonathan’s in the game, we have to help him, we have to boost his confidence.

“We’ve got to let him know that, ‘Hey, you can play.'”

Willis still goes by the women’s practice to check in, especially after the junior got his first action in a Division 1-A game.

“He came into practice,” Fernandez said. “He was pretty excited about having the opportunity.”

But coming into the women’s practice isn’t anything new for Willis.

“He usually comes in and he sits in practice,” Fernandez said. “He’s really close to some of our players.”

Willis said that he keeps regular contact with the women’s team, and even though he is with the men now, he is close to each team.

“I definitely feel like a part of both programs,” Willis said. “We’re like a big family.”

However small, the impact Willis has made on the women’s team and is making with the men may not be noticeable, but will certainly be felt by Willis, who is grateful for his experience with each squad.

“I’m good friends with all of them, I still go by there and speak to the coaches,” Willis said. “I’m actually looking for a replacement for me for the women’s practice squad.”