Four years ago, Willie Dersch graduated from Holy Cross High School, ready to take the ACC by storm after a high school career in which he was named a McDonald's All-American and was honored as the best basketball player in the state of New York.
This weekend, Dersch graduates from the University of Virginia, ready to prove himself in the world of investment banking after a college basketball career in which he failed to reach the lofty goals established for him by recruiting experts and Cavalier fans.
Dersch arrived in Charlottesville bearing the burden of what now look like unrealistic expectations. As he leaves four years later, bearing a career average of 5.9 points per game, the 6-foot-6 swingman has no regrets.
"It's definitely had its high points, it's definitely had its low points," Dersch said. "I had a great time here at U.Va. just in general. There were definitely some things I would change within basketball, but it was a good experience. I'm a better person for it."
Dersch's basketball pedigree led folks to expect he could duplicate the success of players like Jeff Lamp, Norman Nolan and Cory Alexander, other McDonald's All-Americans who starred at Virginia. The same people who lauded his arrival turned on him when he did not meet those expectations, pegging him as an underachieving, unathletic white guy. Dersch shrugged off most of the criticism but wasn't able to completely ignore it.
"A lot of guys like to say little things behind your back, but you can't let people like that bother you," Dersch said. "Those are people who wish they could be someplace else, people who have nothing better to do than get on other people. They're not worth your while. There have been times at places we all hang out, parties or something, where people voice their displeasure. They won't make it hurt purposely, but you'll just hear it. You'll hear the whispers. You want to show them something, but you can't let people like that bother you. They're just small-minded people.
"I remember coming in as a McDonald's All-American, everyone expected quite a bit from me. There was a lot of pressure, but you've got to respond to something like that. You've got to show people what you have and I've done my best. That was high school basketball and this is college basketball. They're two totally different entities."
Dersch's freshman season was successful but relatively unmemorable, save for his role in the chaotic ending of a bizarre one-point Cavalier loss to Duke. Virginia fans still haven't forgiven ACC referee Rick Hartzel for failing to notice Dersch at the scorer's table, ready to check in for Nolan. The Blue Devils quickly inbounded the ball, catching the Cavs off guard and forcing Nolan to foul Steve Wojciechowski in desperation.
"My first year, I contributed where I could," Dersch said. "I had a lot of the skills, but it was just tough. I was getting beat up a lot [by bigger ACC opponents] and I wasn't getting much playing time, either. It didn't really give me the footing I would have liked going into my second year."
Dersch started almost all of the 1997-98 season at small forward, upping his scoring average from 2.8 to 6.5 points per game. He tied with point guard Donald Hand for the team lead in assists in an offense that relied almost solely on Nolan and fellow star Curtis Staples.
In Pete Gillen's first season as Virginia coach, Dersch was a critical component of a team that got by with only six scholarship players, averaging 10.2 points per game. But Dersch's senior season was perhaps his most frustrating, as he averaged only 10.9 minutes per game. By the end of the year, his playing time had dwindled to little more than a cameo role.
Despite the addition of six talented newcomers and Ducharme's return from injury, Dersch said he did not anticipate his on-court role would diminish so drastically.
"I didn't expect it at all," Dersch said. "I worked hard this summer. I know the coaches knew that I was coming into this season ready. A lot of guys stepped up, a lot of the first years, which obviously put a lot more pressure on me and my minutes. As a team, we did well. But I wish I could have taken a more active role in our winning.
"Oh yeah, there were times when some of those first years were giving more, contributing more, but as a whole, I was definitely never happy with the amount of playing time I got."
Asst. coach Tom Herrion said he understands Dersch's frustration with his lack of playing time.
"Obviously you don't feel good about it, but it's always difficult" to find time for everyone, Herrion said. "Sometimes people might get shortchanged and you hate to see that especially because Willie's a great person."
Dersch averaged just 3.9 points per game this season, but was able to take some solace in his role as co-captain - a post he filled for the second straight year - on a team with eight players in their freshman or sophomore years.
"I'm happy I could contribute as a team leader too," he said. "The minutes are important, but to contribute to the team, the attitude, the concept - that means a lot."
Yet Dersch's 1999-2000 season was not without its moments. Asked to pick his favorite, the Floral Park, N.Y., native barely had to think before selecting what he referred to only as "the dunk."
Dersch's fast-break dunk in the waning seconds of Virginia's 90-76 win at North Carolina Feb. 20 was not Vince Carter quality, but it didn't have to be. All that mattered was that the Cavaliers were about to sweep the Tar Heels for the first time in 19 seasons and Dersch had the opportunity to slam home an emphatic exclamation point at the end of his trying career. He got a technical foul for hanging on the rim after the two-handed jam, but that was fine for a guy who said he was just trying to make sure he didn't blow the dunk.
"I couldn't have topped that," Dersch said. "It was head and shoulders above everything else [this season]. Going into the Dean Dome, beating them twice that year, getting my first technical foul - you can't beat that.
"I wasn't expecting to hang on like that, but I just couldn't let go. That was awesome. And it was a team thing - as a team we played so well against them, that to be able to top it off like that, it was just a climax to everything"