Dec. 9, 2015
ARLINGTON, Texas - When high school student-athletes graduate, many are forced to hang up old uniforms and put away equipment for a sport they dedicated four years of their lives to.
The UT Arlington women's basketball team offers a unique experience for some former high schoolers to lace up the basketball shoes once more and compete as if they are a Division I athlete. UTA's Blue Bloods, the male practice squad for the Lady Mavericks, have been part of the resurgence of the program and continue to challenge the roster on a daily basis.
Senior Trey Brackens graduated from high school in 2008 and followed in his father's footsteps by enlisting into the Army for four years. He always had a love for basketball and watched as many UTA games as he could when he returned to school.
So when Talby Justus, assistant coach and Blue Blood coordinator, saw Brackens playing at the MAC and approached him, Brackens jumped at the chance to get back in the game.
"When I was in the military, I felt like I was missing out on the college experience," Brackens said. "Now I feel like an actual DI student-athlete. The girls make us feel like part of the team. I feel like when they win, we win and when they lose, we lose."
UT Arlington coach Krista Gerlich carried the tradition of a practice squad over in 2013 from her tenure at West Texas A&M. The men infuse strength and physicality into drills the women's team couldn't test with its own players. In turn, the challenge forces UTA to practice at a higher level.
"Practices are intense and they're very motivational," senior Arun Koshy said. "Coaches are always asking for the best out of everyone every single day. The girls come at us with everything they've got, so we have to go at them just as hard. It's such a privilege to be here."
Justus recruited Koshy after a game of 5-on-5 with friends at the MAC. Koshy played basketball in high school, and saw an opportunity to help the Lady Mavericks improve and learn about the program.
Junior Clarence Kirkwood is a returning Blue Blood who transferred to UTA after playing a year of men's basketball at Iowa Central Community College. The Kansas City, Missouri native joined the team because of the comfortable feeling he got being on a team again. He also saw a learning opportunity from Gerlich and her staff considering he wants to coach basketball in the future.
"We have to play hard and not make anything easy for them," Kirkwood said. "I'm just trying to make them tougher and more patient in the post."
As a reward for their hard work that may go unnoticed by fans in the crowd, members of the Blue Bloods squad are treated as if they were also Division I athletes.
Players have to register with the NCAA Clearinghouse to be eligible to practice. They also receive access to College Park Center's academic center for student-athletes, tickets to all men's and women's games, practice gear and recommendations from the coaches in any future job opportunities.
"It's important to get an education when you come to a university, but it's also important to get contacts of people that you know because a lot of times with jobs, it's about who you know," Justus said. "After spending a year or two in that and seeing what kind of young men we're dealing with, I know coach Gerlich or myself or coach Cole, anybody would be so happy to call on behalf of one of those young men."
Over the summer and during the first few weeks of school, Justus spends time at the MAC courts looking for students who are skilled, but who those men are off the court is just as important.
"They have to have some ability about them, but also you can tell a lot about a kid's character when you watch them compete amongst their peers," Justus said. "It's important when they're coming into a practice with a bunch of girls that they have more than just the ability to play basketball, they have to be good men."
UTA usually practices without the Blue Bloods on Sundays because the players are at church, holding another job somewhere else or spending time with their children. Justus said the coaching staff appreciates all they do for the program because they're giving of themselves without expectation.
The practice team also gives the program a connection to the student body and allows the team to get to know other students on campus. Last year, there were seven Blue Bloods compared to nine this season.
"You get to see behind the scenes of the team and UTA Athletics," Koshy said. "Basketball has been a part of my life since high school, but this is an opportunity I'd never thought I'd have as a regular student."
For students interesting in joining the Blue Bloods, contact Talby Justus by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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