Playground Notes: Transfers bring question marks, championship success

Keith Farner

One of the more overlooked aspects in the midst of national championship hoopla, conference championship confetti and sellout crowd extravaganza were the players who built those memories.

A part of each of those magical moments was a group of athletes who were all individuals shortly before they were added to Western rosters.

Casey Rooney, Buster Ashley, Jeremi Johnson, Nigel Dixon, Caron Blotch and now Elgrace Wilborn and Brandon Smith are all transfers who helped turn Western into a school that expects to win conference championships. You could even go back two years ago to Tiffiany Diggins and Shala Reese in women’s basketball.

Now you might say transfers come every season in nearly every sport, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is most, if not all of them, have gone from tentative question marks to solid contributors and, at times, most valuable player candidates.

Take Johnson.

When he got to Western for the 2002 preseason, football was around the fourth thing coaches talked about when his name was brought up. First it was his weight. Johnson hadn’t worked out all summer and the 275-pound figure was generous from the get-go.

Then they wondered how he would fit in with the players and, most importantly, the running backs, since at the time there was still a battle for No. 1 and he was a part of it.

By the time December arrived, he had turned into a one-handed-catching fullback in the national championship game. That night in Chattanooga, Tenn., Johnson assembled his personal highlight reel on ESPN cameras. Next time you see a Bengals game, look in the backfield. You’ll see the former out-of-shape question mark.

Next up is Dixon, formally known as “Big Jelly.” Dixon rolled up to Bowling Green after he learned his former school, Florida State, was having academic trouble in athletics.

Word from the basketball Toppers is the jelly has been shed. Forget “Big Jelly,” now the basketballers call him “Big Solid” after spending some quality time with the weights.

But when Mr. Solid first arrived last summer from FSU, he was known as the backup plan to fallen superstar Chris Marcus. With a year to sit out, Topper Nation was glad to see “Big Solid” give Marcus a little muscle in practice. Now Marcus is long gone and Dixon is expected to fill the rather large hole in the middle. Don’t expect Solid to get overlooked in rookie coach Darrin Horn’s playbook.

The silver screen sensation is brought to you by Caron Blotch. This time last year, volleyball coach Travis Hudson must’ve at least wondered about his setter situation this season. After all, he would shortly have to replace all-time assists leader Sara Noe with somebody formidable enough to keep the Sun Belt dominance alive.

So Jessie Wagner mentions to Hudson that her best friend – and fellow freshman – from high school, Blotch, is not having the best of times at Texas. All of a sudden, setter Erica Rigger is in line to transfer from Western and – boom – Blotch walks into Diddle Arena. All Blotch has done so far this season is average 12.85 assists per game, including being named tournament MVP at the Kent State Invitational three weeks ago.

Smith has done well too, especially after arriving to Smith Stadium less than a month ago. The former Missouri linebacker played his first game in a Western uniform Saturday and collected a sack and four tackles.

But every transfer doesn’t end up in the headlines and at the top of the stat sheet. This year’s question mark belongs to Elgrace Wilborn, formerly of Buzz Peterson’s Tennessee basketball team.

When Wilborn landed on campus just after Labor Day, he became one of Darrin Horn’s first additions. After leaving the Vols on bad terms, Topper faithful have been wondering if he’s worthy of a second chance or a waste of a scholarship.

But that’s what every coach has to consider when taking a chance on a transfer. Most of the time they need to fill a void or are banking on another coach’s recommendation.

Yet one of the most overlooked aspects of the last year full of championships has been the value of the average transfer.

Without these players, Western wouldn’t have had near the success it has the past year.

So next time a conference championship is brought back to the Hill, don’t hesitate to look at where those players came from.

Keith Farner is a sports columnist and sports editor at the Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]