CHAMPAIGN — When it comes to basketball, Eriel Davis is nothing if not persistent.
As a college freshman, the Danville native never missed a practice with the University of Illinois women’s team even though she never was a member of the 2011-12 Illini.
Instead, the 5-foot-6 guard stood ready to serve as a practice player. Not that there was much call for fill-ins on the court because that Illinois team had a fully stocked 15-player roster.
“I kind of just sat back a lot, watched, observed, took everything in,” Davis said. “I wasn’t really active.”
Following an 11-19 season, the UI coaching staff was replaced. Eager to remain a part of the program, Davis called new head coach Matt Bollant to offer her services.
Bollant said no.
At the time, the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach wasn’t sure there would be any need. Besides, during a coaching career that dates to 1996, Bollant has learned it’s best to take a careful — even wary — approach to pitches from unrecruited players.
“You really have to be careful who you add,” he said. “Sometimes walk-ons don’t add to the program. Sometimes walk-ons don’t (get to) do exactly what they want to do or they’re mad because they don’t get to play, and they really hurt the team.
“So we want to be careful who we add. And (I) really didn’t know her, so it’s hard to add someone you don’t know.”
While familiarizing himself with Illinois’ personnel, Bollant was forced to deal with a fluctuating roster. During the offseason, two returning players and one incoming recruit asked for — and were granted — their releases so they could transfer. A top returning player was declared academically ineligible for the first semester. Then preseason injuries further depleted UI numbers.
By October, Bollant was in need of reinforcements, and he recalled the former practice player who’d been so eager to continue her connection to the team.
“One of the things we talk about a lot with our staff is just that circle of trust,” Bollant said. “We talked to our players a little bit about (Davis) and just got to know her a little bit and just hear more about her and just found out, gosh, I think this is a really good kid and I think she’ll only add to our program.”
When summoned, Davis was prepared. Throughout the late summer and early fall, the sophomore had continued to work out on her own at the Activities and Recreation Center on campus, putting up shot after shot in the gym and hitting the weightroom. Miles of running was part of her stay-in-shape regimen, too.
“Just in case I did get that call,” Davis said.
When it came, the two-time News-Gazette All-Area special mention pick learned she would be more than a practice body this time. Instead, Davis would suit up as a walk-on member of the team. In fact, Bollant already has awarded an available scholarship to the former Vikings standout for the spring semester.
“All I can say is I’m really blessed,” Davis said. “Basketball has always been a part of my life, and it’s something I always dreamed to play at the Division I level.”
Actual playing time, however, figures to be limited. So far, Davis has appeared in four games for a total of four minutes, entering at the end of contests long since decided. Still, unlike last season, she is a regular on the practice court. Her most important role, as it is with all end-of-the-benchers, is to push and prod teammates to get better each day.
“What I want to bring to practices is energy and a sense of life to the court,” Davis said.
Although diminutive in a sport where height is so valued, Davis has proven she can hold her own in a Division I practice. Recently, 6-foot freshman McKenzie Piper was assigned to guard Davis in a one-one-one drill.
“She got by Piper a bunch, so she did a good job with that,” Bollant said.
And it’s not all practice grind for Davis. Being an Illini player this season meant making a Thanksgiving week trip to the Bahamas for a tournament.
“It was a great experience,” said Davis, who never before had traveled outside the United States. “It was really breathtaking.”
Just one of the perks of being a major college basketball player. But even if the Illini had eaten their holiday turkey in North Dakota, Davis would have relished the meal just as much because of the company at her table. Ask this 1,000-point prep scorer what it means to be a member of the
UI team and be prepared for an emotional response.
“You’re going to make me cry,” said Davis, her voice close to cracking. “It really means a lot because I’ve been through a lot and I’ve come really far. I just kept my determination, kept fighting, and wanted to work hard, and it all paid off. It’s been a blessing.”
For Davis, there are no guarantees beyond this season. With a UI recruiting class of six on the way as well as a transfer who will be eligible in 2013-14, Davis’ status on the next UI roster is in question.
For the rest of this season, however, she gets to pull on an Illini jersey every game day.
And it’s clear that Bollant is glad to have her around.
“Sometimes in life you get to do some nice things for good kids,” he said, “and to be able to give her a scholarship and help her family for the second semester, it was really, really neat.
”We’ve got a lot of (recruits) coming in and we’ll have to see where we are healthwise, scholarshipwise (next season). But certainly we’d like her to be around our program and doing something.”