Jan. 20, 1998

After Hesitant Start, Dersch Starting to Find His Niche

Willie Dersch
Willie Dersch (File photo)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - In the Virginia locker room recently, Willie Dersch appeared to be the walking wounded. He had an ice pack wrapped around his right ankle, some more ice on his arm, and tape and bandages over assorted parts of his 6-5 frame.

He didn't look so good. But he felt great.

For after a long struggle with his confidence and his shot, Dersch had just lit up VMI for a career-high 18 points in 24 minutes, including the first dunk of his college career. "I feel like I'm coming around," Dersch said as he tended to his nicks and bruises after the Keydet game. "I just think I'm more focused."

That could be good news for UVa coach Jeff Jones, who had hoped for big things from the sophomore swingman from Floral Park, N.Y.

Before the season began, Jones pointed to Dersch as a player who would have to shoulder more of the team's scoring burden than he did as a freshman, when he averaged 2.8 points in 28 games.

"Willie quite honestly did not look at the basket last year," Jones said. "He's got to be a threat."

By his own admission, Dersch was a threat only to himself once the campaign began.

In one early season stretch, he scored just eight points in five games, put up a short jumper against Appalachian State that hit the underside of the rim, and lost his starting job.

And criticism from the doubters stung the 20-year-old.

"It hurt to read those articles after I played badly in those few games, and I took it personally," said Dersch, a McDonald's All-American in high school.

"There are expectations on me to produce and I'm putting expectations on myself. This is a big year for me," he said.

Instead of brooding, though, Dersch said he took out his frustration by shooting more before practice and upping his intensity level on the court.

That equation worked well--he scored 13 points against Virginia Commonwealth before his showing against VMI, then got his starting job back at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii.

He responded with 15 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in 40 minutes of play in a tough 87-82 overtime loss to New Mexico State.

That is more along the lines of what Jones wants and needs from a player so dedicated to fundamentals that he counts his daily planner and journal as his most prized possession.

"Shooting is not the best thing he does, but he is capable of putting the ball in the basket, Jones said.

Dersch also said he has been helped by the Cavaliers' newly-found propensity for an up-tempo style.

Though he won the Capital Classic 3-point shooting contest in 1996, his career shooting mark is about 35 percent, mostly because he does not get easy baskets.

"When we've come out these last few games and really run down the court, it opens it up," Dersch said.

"Instead of just always banking on the jump shot, now I'm able to drive the middle a little bit, cut for a pass, or take a quick little shot," he said.

Dersch also credits Jones' rigorous offseason conditioning program with adding to his floor game.

"Last year, I felt myself fatigu,ing easily. I wasn't playing as many minutes as the other guys had and I'd already be tired," he said.

"That's what I want to correct this year and I think I have because I'm in the best shape I've probably ever been in."

Another moment from the VMI game made Dersch's injuries seem trivial in comparison. His high school friend and teammate Greg Lyons got into the game in the last minute, the first regular season action Lyons had seen since his battle with cancer.

"To me, that was really a great moment," Dersch said. "You think about all the things Greg's gone through and it makes your problems seem a lot less important."