By Dave DeWitt
11 players in Carolina Blue uniforms. 1 coach. About 2 dozen fans. And 21,000 empty blue seats. That’s the scene for every North Carolina Junior Varsity basketball game.
Three hours before the “Real” Tar Heels play in a nationally-televised ACC game, the loudest noise during the JV game is the squeaking of shoes and the periodic shouts of coach Jerod Haase. Today, the JV Heels are taking on some military school named Massanutten. And things aren’t going well.
Matt Van Hoy is fighting hard to score and rebound against Massanutten’s several Division I prospects. Van Hoy is a 6-foot-4-inch forward from tiny Mocksville, North Carolina. The fact that he’s here, on this court, is unlikely, but it’s the culmination of a dream.
“I’ve wanted to do it since I was a little kid playing in the driveway,” Van Hoy said. “I was playing, you know, hopefully, I can make the JV team. You know, to wear the Carolina uniform regardless of whether it’s varsity or JV, it’s still a life-changing experience in my opinion.”
Van Hoy’s dream was hard-won. He tried out twice for the JV team as a freshman and sophomore, and was cut both times. But he came back as a junior, and made the team. Now, he’s the only senior on the squad.
A few rows up from the court, Matt’s mom and dad sit with a group of parents. Video cameras are rolling. Mary Van Hoy beams.
“Well, he’s made so many good friends,” she said, “and his coaches have been wonderful. Hank and I met the parents; they’re so supportive. I can’t really think of anything bad to say. And they all love Carolina, so it really has been a dream come true.”
The Carolina Basketball we all know produced several NBA stars, most notably Michael Jordan, and has won five national titles. But it also has another distinction: the only major program to field a JV team.
In 1972, when freshmen were first allowed to play varsity basketball, most schools stopped fielding a second team. But North Carolina has kept it going for 40 years.
It started with legendary coach Dean Smith, and the man continuing his legacy, Roy Williams, of the varsity squad. When he was just starting out at Carolina, Williams also coached the JV.
“For me, it was great experience,” Williams said. “I could try anything I wanted to try and not have to wait until I read the paper the next day to see if I was dumb or smart. I still have such fond memories and all those kids are really special to me.”
When Williams left Carolina to be the head coach at Kansas in 1988, one of the first things he did was start a JV team. But the Big 12 conference told him to stop because of concerns over Title IX compliance.
When he came back to Carolina nine years ago, Williams happily embraced the JV team. He says it will be here as long as he is.
“For me, it’s something I want to continue doing,” he said. “I saw my own son go through the program. I’ve known kids who have gone through the program who still talk so highly of that whole experience.”
Coaching the JV team is a task taken on willingly by Jerod Haase, who is also an assistant coach with the varsity. In between constant recruiting and preparing scouting reports for the likes of Duke and Kentucky, he also arranges a JV schedule that includes games against Central Carolina Community College and Greensboro Day School. After coaching the varsity for a couple hours every afternoon, he runs the JV practices at night.
“On a personal level, I want them to learn something about themselves,” Haase said. ”I want to push them, put them against good competition, and when they leave here say, ‘I learned something about basketball, I learned something about life,’ and go away with a positive experience.”
Every fall 70 to 80 kids show up to try out for the JV team – about 15 are selected. They can play for two seasons, and for a select few, an even bigger prize awaits. Every year, a walk-on slot or two opens up on the varsity, and a JV player fills it.
Because he’s a senior, that won’t happen for Matt Van Hoy. And he’s fine with that. And being a JV player does have some perks.
“We don’t get to keep the jersey and shorts, unfortunately, but we get a few pairs of these shoes, Carolina sweats,” he said. “The best thing is we get a team plaque with the team picture, the entire schedule, the scores on it. So that’s a nice keepsake. I’ve got in my room right now.”
And each player also gets a ticket to the varsity game, sitting right behind the bench, the envy of 21,000 fans who now fill all those blue seats. An hour and a half after their game ended, the JV players are the happiest cheerleaders in the building.