Local walk-ons fulfilling lifelong dreams at WKU

Freshman guard Spence Sheldon, a walk-on on the men’s basketball team, listens to instructions from Interim Head Coach Ray Harper during practice Feb. 14. The men’s basketball team’s record is 8-17 this season.

Cole Claybourn

It took leaving the Bowling Green area for walk-ons Spence Sheldon and Jay Starks to end up at WKU.

Sheldon broke his ankle his junior year at Warren Central High School and transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his senior season.

Starks, a former Allen County-Scottsville High School standout, played for two years at Volunteer State Community College before coming to WKU this fall.

Both said the moves were necessary so they could improve their skills enough to where they’d be able to play for the program they had long dreamed of being a part of.

“This was just a childhood dream of mine just to play at Western Kentucky,” Sheldon said. “I worked my butt off for 17, 18 years having that goal in mind. Just the fact that I’m on the edge — I’m on the team, not necessarily playing — but I’m just one step closer to my dream.”

Starks was trying to follow along the path of Topper great Jim McDaniels — the star of the 1971 Final Four team and also a Scottsville native.

“I always looked up to Jim McDaniels,” Starks said. “I pretty much just always planned on coming to be a Hilltopper. It was my dream as a child.”

Both had other opportunities — either as a preferred walk-on at other schools or scholarship offers from smaller schools. Wake Forest was planning on Sheldon going to prep school, “then we were going to go from there,” he said. Florida Gulf Coast also showed interest.

Instead, he chose WKU last spring when he thought he might redshirt this season, which essentially would’ve been the equivalent of prep school but would have given him a chance to learn WKU’s system.

“When I got this opportunity to come back home, I was ready to come back home and be with the family again — just carry out basketball as long as I can,” Sheldon said.

Starks had a number of Ivy League schools interested and held a few Division II scholarship offers, namely Central Missouri. But high requirements for ACT scores at the Ivy League schools, plus a need to be around his mother — who he said “was going through things” — kept him close to home.

Former head coach Ken McDonald wanted Starks to walk on out of high school, but Starks opted for junior college. While at Volunteer State, he tried contacting McDonald about walking on, but could never get in touch. So, instead, he enrolled at WKU and was just planning on finishing his schooling until he ran into McDonald at the Preston Center.

“I was down there working out, and I was like, ‘If there’s a spot still on the team, I’d like to come out and play,'” Starks told McDonald. “‘I’m not looking to come out and start or nothing like that — just be a part of the team.’

“Now I’m here, and I’m loving it.”

By looking at the stat sheet, it might not appear the two have had much impact on the team. Both have logged three total minutes apiece and haven’t scored.

But Interim Head Coach Ray Harper said they’re both valuable assets, especially with the amount of injuries WKU has suffered this season.

“Those two are getting extended minutes in practice,” he said. “Jay actually got his first quality minutes at Florida Atlantic and was very productive — got a steal and an assist. I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in at any time. Spence, same scenario.

“They’re just good, competitive kids, and they’re both Bowling Green (area) guys, so they know what this program’s all about. It means something to put that jersey on. That’s very important.”