PROVIDENCE – To walk in the walk-on sneakers donned by PC Friar junior Andrew Fonts and freshman Tommy Dempsey means upholding the role of a good teammate while enjoying the action from two of the best seats in the house.
“If our names get called, we’re very grateful and ready to help in any way we can,” said Dempsey as Providence returns to action Wednesday night (8:30 tipoff) against St. John’s at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. “If it doesn’t happen, we’re excited to watch these guys. They put in a lot of work.”
Fonts and Dempsey speak the same language about an unheralded role that should come with the following disclaimer – only the strong survive. Both were semi-recruited to Providence, hence why they are labeled as preferred walk-ons. They joined the Friars knowing fully well nothing would be guaranteed other than that they would be associated with a Big East program.
It was an opportunity that neither one wanted to pass up even if it meant forgoing winter break at home and spending spring break in a warmer climate.
“When I first had the conversation about coming here, it was more about the experience. I was mostly getting recruited by Division III schools and wanted a Division I experience,” said Fonts, a Portsmouth, R.I. native who attended Portsmouth Abbey School. “Come here, find your niche on the team, find what you do best, and push the rest of the guys every day during practice. Think about the team, not yourself. You’re trying to make the team better and you’re trying to win.”
Fonts is the envy of Rhode Island natives who grew up with serious thoughts of someday slipping on a Friar basketball jersey. The road that led Dempsey to PC begins with the connection between Cooley and his father – also named Tommy and now in his eighth season as the head coach of the Binghamton men’s basketball program.
“I’ve known coach Cooley the majority of my life and have been watching Providence games for a long time. He told me when I got here to not take a backseat to anyone,” said Dempsey, who helped his Binghamton-based Seton Catholic Central high school team to back-to-back championships. “Like Andrew said, it’s about pushing everyone in practice so hopefully you get the same opportunities as everyone else.”
The Division I college basketball stage doesn’t seem as blinding when you’ve been around it as long as the younger Dempsey has. His dad was the head coach at Rider University when as a five-year-old, Tommy started taking basketball-themed road trips.
“It hasn’t been as big of a transition as maybe for most freshmen, but this level is completely different, most notably the size, speed, and strength,” said Dempsey. “I’ve been working a lot with (PC head strength & conditioning coach Ken White), but scouting is another big thing. We didn’t do any scouting in high school. I think the preparation that goes into every game is a big key to winning.”
Walk into the Ruane Friar Development Center before practice and the odds are pretty good you’ll spot either one or both of them working diligently on their respective shooting strokes. Just because Fonts and Dempsey are not central figures in the rotation doesn’t diminish their value to the greater good.
Specifically, Fonts and Dempsey are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the opposition’s chief scoring threats and mimic their tendencies to the best of their ability.
“We didn’t do much of a scout team my first two years but we’re doing it more this year,” noted Fonts, who has teamed with Dempsey along with sit-out transfers Jared Bynum and Noah Horchler to form the core of PC’s get-the-main-guys-ready squad. “When we watch film, we watch their personnel and try to do what those players would do.”
An indicator that even walk-ons must always remain vigilant came during Fonts’ freshman year with PC. It was a December 2017 home game against Stony Brook when Cooley inserted walk-on Tom Planek in the hope of generating a spark. The move worked as Planek was on the court when the Friars made their move in an eventual 62-60 win after trailing by double digits.
“There was probably 15 minutes left and Planek helped change the game,” said Fonts, who has added 25 pounds of muscle since coming to PC and like Dempsey is listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. “Right there and then, I put it into my mind that coach can call on me at any second. I’m always ready and always locked in.”
As Planek helped Fonts, the latter now finds himself in the position of taking Dempsey under his wing. During the occasions when PC has really stepped on the opposition’s throat, the pair has received proper clearance from Cooley to check in and enjoy the sudden spike in home crowd noise that comes whenever a walk-on makes his way to the scorer’s table.
To date this season, Fonts has appeared in seven games while Dempsey has logged time in four contests. In the season opener against Sacred Heart, Dempsey assisted on a Fonts 3-pointer. Dempsey has attempted one shot on the season – a three that went in against Merrimack.
“Seeing Tommy get his first bucket was awesome. It’s nice to get in the game and see your hard work pay off,” said Fonts. “Planek was a great mentor for me and I hope to be the same for Tommy.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03