BUFFALO - This is no place to be visiting in the dead of winter, but for Florentino Valencia, there is a certain comfort zone here as the January wind cuts hard off the eastern end of Lake Erie and forces him to pull his knit hat a little lower, and jerk the collar on his coat a bit higher.
This is a lot like home. This is his kind of town. Cold, rusty, harsh and gray, with an edge.
For a blue-collar guy like Valencia, this could just as well be his hometown of Chicago, where Lake Michigan makes the winters a cherished torture. This could also be Toledo, where Valencia labors in the trenches for the University of Toledo basketball team.
The 6-5, 240-pound sophomore doesn't own a spin move, a dazzling cross-over dribble or a killer jump shot.
He slugs it out inside, throws his body horizontal after loose balls, flails away to corral rebounds, and bounces off the floor like a prize fighter coming up off the canvas. He bloodies his elbows and knees, and he doesn't mind getting dirty doing his job.
"That's my role with this team - to work hard around the basket and battle for every rebound, every loose ball, and score when I get the opportunity," Valencia said.
He has started five of Toledo's 11 games this season, but is second on the team in minutes played, trailing only senior Keith Triplett. He leads the team in rebounding with 5.4 per game, and is second in scoring at 10.8 ppg. Valencia does his damage within a few feet of the basket.
"We need Tino to be a presence for us around the basket, to defend hard, rebound, and put the ball in the basket," UT coach Stan Joplin said. "He brings a lot of energy to the floor, and that can be a contagious thing too. Sometimes he can give us a real lift with how hard he plays."
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Valencia doesn't mind filling the role of motivational force for the Rockets, who need a win today against Buffalo to even their record at 6-6.
"I'm really an energetic person, so I just try and bring some energy when I come in the game and get the guys riled up," Valencia said. "To me, it really don't matter if I start or not. I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can, and play every game like it's my last game. I was always taught to play like that."
Those lessons in intensity came in the Chicago Public League, where Valencia averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior at Crane Tech two years ago.
"Growing up and playing around Chicago, everybody always tries to come right at you every day," he said. "In the Public League, you can't just come in the gym and play. You have to play as hard as you can every day. My grandma and my mom were always on me about that, and told me to play as hard as you can, and ask the Lord to give you all of the game."
Unlike most freshmen, Valencia came to the Rockets last year ready to face the physical rigors of the college game.
"Tino's big and strong, so he stepped right in and helped the team right away," Triplett said. "He can play inside with the big boys, and he doesn't mind pushing people around in there. He's pretty good at that."
Valencia said he was able to overpower most players in high school, but has had to add more finesse to his approach at UT.
"Physically, it's a lot different in college ball," Valencia said. "It was an adjustment. In high school, I used to be a lot stronger than everybody. Here, you can use your strength, but sometimes you have to make a move. You can't muscle everybody."
Valencia said he looked at other schools after initially deciding to go to Auburn, but he was sold on UT's persistence in recruiting him.
"You have to go to a team that wants you," Valencia said. "If they're loyal to you, you should be loyal to them. The coaches here told me that I could come in and have an opportunity to play, but it was either play hard, or don't play at all."
Valencia chose to go all out, the only way he knows how to play.
"I have to do all of the little things the team needs me to do," Valencia said. "That means laying my body on the line, taking charges, diving on the floor for loose balls - whatever it takes."
Joplin said he is looking for Valencia to continue to improve on the defense, develop his jump shot, and learn all the subtle nuances of using his size and strength on the boards. Valencia says he is happy to fill that role.
"I'm not the star on this team, and I'm not trying to be the star. Keith Triplett is the star," Valencia said. "We have to follow his lead and play our roles. And I'm happy with my role."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.42.88544 -78.87846