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Published: Monday, 2/14/2011

At 6-10, Genoa graduate finds home on the court

Walk-on gets surprise start in big game

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Richard Wonnell got to start in a game against Temple, a ranked opponent. Richard Wonnell got to start in a game against Temple, a ranked opponent.
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At 6-foot-10, Richard Wonnell looks like a physical specimen built for the basketball court.

But believe it or not, the sport that initially lured the Genoa High graduate to the University of Toledo was football.

"I was never recruited by anybody for basketball," Wonnell said. "A couple schools wanted me for football, and that's what got me here to UT. But then I decided I wanted to try and play on the basketball team."

Basketball is and always has been Wonnell's favorite sport, so he decided to give up his chance to play for the UT football team and attended an open gym workout with the Rocket basketball team in June in the hopes of continuing his career on the hardwood.

"When the new coach, [Tod Kowalczyk], came in [last spring], he got some people off the team so I knew he was serious about turning the program around and that there would be some open spots," Wonnell said. "When I went to the open gym, I just played as hard as I could and hoped good things would happen."

After a few pick-up games with his future teammates, the UT coaching staff decided to offer Wonnell a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.

It was a major accomplishment for Wonnell, but little did he know at the time that five months later he'd find himself in the starting lineup for UT's second game of the season at then-22nd-ranked Temple.

Although he didn't register a point and grabbed just one rebound against the Owls, it was still a milestone event for Wonnell.

"Honestly, I never expected to get any playing time, let alone be starting in a game," he said. "I figured since I was a walk-on, I'd just sit at the end of the bench and enjoy myself and enjoy the free clothes you get and don't complain. It kind of surprised me when I went in the first couple games."

Wonnell used the word "scary" to describe the experience of playing in front of 13,000 fans in the Rockets' season-opener at Illinois on Nov. 10.

"The most people I had played in front of before then was maybe 2,000," Wonnell said. "It was a big difference and something I had to get used to."

Now with 17 games under his belt, Wonnell has settled in quite nicely. He averages 1.0 point and 1.1 rebounds in 6.7 minutes per game, and has become a valued contributor in the program.

"Richard has been a great addition," Kowalczyk said. "He's a guy that we think has a bright future in this program. He's just scratching the surface. Probably for the first time in his life he's dedicated himself to becoming a good basketball player. I think he's enjoying seeing how good he can become.

"He's come so far in just a short period of time, and we think he can really help us down the road."

It's somewhat of a rare occurrence for walk-ons to become fully integrated on a team, but that's definitely been the case for Wonnell and the other nonscholarship players at Toledo.

"The guys really like him," Kowalczyk said. "He's fun, he's funny, and just a good-hearted guy that's been a great addition to our locker room."

Contact Zach Silka at: zsilka@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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