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Farewell, Three-headed Monster!

How many of these guys will we miss next year, Tu?
The role of the walk-on player in any collegiate athletic program is not for the faint of heart. Think of all the things that make little kids dream of making the team: personal success, accolades, showing up on TV, being recognized by people, and maybe - if things break just right - making that one heroic play that carries your team to victory. Now think of the things that make most of us give up on those dreams long before college: hard work, sacrifice, a coach two inches away from your face questioning the value of your continued existence, heart-breaking defeat, long hours in the gym/weight room/whatever, and the final realization that God just didn't make you as athletic as He made Jordan Crawford. If you're a walk on, you get the second list with almost no realistic - or even fanciful - shot at the first.

As a walk-on, the coach expects you to prepare just as hard as the scholarship guys do in practice without having the carrot of playing big minutes in the game. Despite that - and the entire previous paragraph - Kevin Feeney, Johnny Mazza, and Joe Hughes chose to put forth the effort and sacrifice necessary to make the XU basketball team. It's not their fault that they weren't born with explosive athleticism, ridiculous height, and silky smooth skills. It is to their credit that they put that all aside and played for X anyway, which is why they get to take home all that team-issued practice gear that will make them the envy of open gyms for the rest of their lives.

Johnny Mazza:
Career stats: 9-4-3, .600/.500/.500

Mazza (L) coiled and ready to strike.
Of the three heads that comprise the monster, it is Mazza's story that I find the most intriguing. After a high school career at St. X as a PG and captain that ended in the 2007 Ohio Division I State Championship game, Johnny joined the Xavier basketball staff as a team manager. I'm not exactly sure what his duties were, but I imagine he took in a good deal of practice. After two years of that, Mazza joined the team as a walk-on. I know he made the team through walk-on tryouts, but it's more fun to me to think that, after two years of watching practices, he decided, "Chuck it, I'm that good" and sauntered onto the court.

Mazza's magical moment came this January is Xavier's dispatching of URI. In one - yes, one - minute of playing time, Mazza not only avoided the dreaded trillion, but also held his nerve to bury a three-pointer in the last minute of the game. It probably helped steady him that XU had long ago salted the contest away, but I for one admire the clutch shooting. Mazza posted 9 points in 23 minutes as a Muskie, shot for great percentages, and had a positive A:TO. It's almost enough to make you think that maybe Coach Mack missed the boat by leaving Johnny on the bench.

Kevin Feeney:
Career stats: 8-17-2, .286/.286/.333
Fact: SEC POY candidate Chandler Parsons didn't want any.

Kevin Feeney somehow picked up the nickname Nighthawk, and I would love to know the story behind that. Since I don't have have a press pass and am too old/uncool to just swing down to Cinci and ask him, I'm going to have be left in the dark. Feeney was a three-sport star (or at least participant) in high school, captaining the soccer and basketball teams and earning second-team All Okaw Valley Conference honors as a third baseman in baseball. Like Mazza, Feeney walked onto the team as a junior.

This year, Kevin Feeney got to live every walk-on's dream: to play meaningful minutes. He set the stage last season in his three minutes against St. Bonaventure by going bananas for 3 points on 1-1/1-1/0-0 shooting. With the stage thus set, Feeney was ready to answer the bell when Jay Canty went down with a stress fracture and left Xavier dreadfully thin at guard. In his banner moment of the year, Feeney played eleven minutes against Florida, tallying 3-2-0 on 1-2/1-2/0-0 shooting whilst adding 2 steals and 0 turnovers. Feeney also added one of the great moments in Xavier history with his after the buzzer rejection of a Charlotte shot to finish the Muskies' demolition of Charlotte at Cintas this year.

Joe Hughes:
Career stats: 19-18-7, .438/.250/.500

Seriously, we love him.
Much like Dante, we here at the Examiner loves us some Joe Hughes. Hughes won the Hustle and Leadership Awards as a senior in high school and was a three-year starter for a team that was ranked #1 in the state for portions of his senior year. Unlike the other two players in this article, Hughes joined the team as a freshman and spent four years on the squad. As a four-year guy, Hughes has been a part of one of the most impressive runs in Xavier history. He and Dante go into the record books together with 107 career wins, one shy of Jason Love's program record. They also have each won 7 NCAA tournament games, also one off of Love's pace. Finally, Hughes, Mazza, Feeney, and Jackson are all on target to graduate this May, which will mark 83 consecutive Xavier seniors who have left the program with their degrees. No wonder Dante is so fond of Hughes.

Dante isn't the only venerated member of the Xavier program who likes Joe. Coach Mack was apparently also a fan, as he awarded Hughes a one-year scholarship to cover his junior season. Mack said, "Joe has earned this scholarship. His contributions to the team often go unnoticed by many people. I think this is a great way to reward Joe for being a true representative of Xavier basketball."

The statistical apogee of Hughes' 40-game, 99-minute career came last January against Fordham. The senior went for 7-2-0 on 2-2/1-1/2-4 shooting in just two minutes of play. While Hughes didn't post the gaudy shooting percentages of a Mazza-type player, he did manage to average 7.2 rebounds per 40 minutes played, which is not bad at all for a 6'6", 205 lb. forward.

Lest anyone think I'm poking fun at these three guys, it bears pointing out that I (once upon a time) was a collegiate walk-on, albeit not at the same level or with the same success as the Three-headed Monster. These guys put in hours of hard work behind the scenes, but rarely get the glory associated with the scholarship players. Few words have been written about these three during their tenures at X, but here's hoping they'll be able to look back on their time in the program with fondness. Farewell, Joe, Kevin, and Johnny: collectively known as the Three-headed Monster!

Farewell Week:
Three-Headed Monster (Joel) 3/22
Andrew Taylor (Brad) 3/24
Jamel McLean (Brad) 3/26
Dante Jackson (Joel) 3/28
Season Wrap-up (Brad) 3/31
Next Year (Joel) 4/1