When Boston College men’s basketball took the floor against Notre Dame for its final home game of the 2020-21 season, something was different: Sam Holtze and Will Jackowitz were starting for the first time in their careers. Combined, the two had appeared in only 14 games and logged just 25 minutes across their three-plus years on the Heights.
Holtze and Jackowitz are part of a larger group of six non-scholarship BC walk-ons. The group is responsible for acting as the scout team in practice, running the offensive and defensive systems of BC’s opponents to help the rest of the team gameplan.
The scout team is not the only thing that the six-man group shares. Together, they are fondly dubbed “The Martians.”
On that Saturday afternoon, however, Jackowitz and Holtze lined up next to perennial BC starters Steffon Mitchell, Demarr Langford Jr., and Jay Heath. Jackowitz jumped for the opening tip against Irish center Nate Laszewski while Holtze crouched eagerly to his right.
Both returned to the bench after two minutes, but that was enough time for each to make an impact. Jackowitz grabbed a board off Notre Dame’s first shot. On the Eagles’ second turn with the ball, Holtze handed the ball off to Jackowitz at the top of the key, who tossed it to Heath, who took a dribble and shoveled it back to Holtze.
Despite being a good 4 feet behind the 3-point line, Holtze didn’t hesitate for a second as he elevated and drained BC’s first triple of the game.
Any score elicits cheers from the Eagles’ bench, so when Holtze’s arching three splashed through the net, the entire BC bench erupted with the most energy it had all season. Coaches and players alike leaped to their feet. In their two minutes of play, Holtze and Jackowitz gave the Eagles a jolt, and for a moment it seemed as though anything was possible in Conte Forum.
The newfound belief created by Holtze and Jackowitz’s play contributed to BC pulling off the unthinkable: a Holy War victory for just its second conference win of the season. The Eagles’ game against Notre Dame came on Senior Night. In his six prior seasons, head coach Jim Christian held the tradition of starting senior walk-ons on Senior Night, and former interim head coach Scott Spinelli opted to continue the practice.
Everything seemed stacked against the Eagles coming into the game. Less than two weeks earlier, BC fired Christian and handed the interim job to assistant coach Spinelli. Later that day, the program suspended star guard Wynston Tabbs for violating COVID-19 protocols. Two days later, the Eagles had to pause team activities due to COVID-19 protocols and were forced to cancel two games.
Despite the obstacles, BC put together its best offensive performance of the season and pulled out a 94-90 victory.
“When I was thinking about coming here, they were basically like yeah you’ll be a Martian,” Jackowitz said. “‘The Martians just kind of collectively refers to the family of walk-ons.”
Along with the pair of seniors, the squad includes sophomores Andrew Kenny and Jonathan Noel and freshmen Abe Atiyeh and Quinn Pemberton. The extraterrestrial name comes from the odd color of the practice jerseys that the scout team wore years ago.
“We wore these old green jerseys when we were the scout team because we had red and gold and we just needed another color,” Holtze said. “I don’t even know where they found them, but they were like super beat up.”
The out of place jerseys quickly drew a reaction from the other players and coaches.
“We would wear them and we started calling us the Martians and just, I don’t know, it’s kind of everyone thinks it’s funny, so I like it,” Holtze laughed.
The program has since upgraded its practice gear, adopting sleek Under Armour jerseys.
“I’ve never worn a green jersey, so I don’t fully understand it,” Kenny said. “We wear our own practice jerseys now.”
Despite the jersey change, the name stuck and has come to mean much more than just the ugly color of an old pinny.
“It’s like a symbol of pride I guess,” Jackowitz said. “It’s kind of a team within a team, you know what I mean? So it’s a fun group to be a part of, bringing energy to practice every day.”
This year, however, the Martians have done much more for the Eagles than just bringing energy to practice. The program struggled with a number of COVID-19 issues, requiring bench players to step into the spotlight.
BC had its first positive test on Jan. 20, and the quarantine process forced the Eagles to cancel their next four games. Just as the squad geared up to take on No. 19 Florida State on Feb. 2, the Eagles’ long-awaited return to the court was delayed yet again, as the Seminoles turned up a positive test and entered COVID-19 protocols.
Even if BC had been able to play, the team would have looked far different than usual. Christian had just four scholarship players available due to COVID-19-related absences, and the rest of the lineup was slated to be filled by the Martians.
Several more players were cleared to play once BC finally returned to action four days later against NC State, but the Martians still played a big role. Kenny led the group with 18 minutes, nailing a pair of 3-pointers and grabbing four rebounds. Pemberton, Noel, Holtze, and Jackowitz all saw the floor as well, and Pemberton and Noel notched their first field goal attempts as Eagles.
While Christian may have struggled to produce results on the court during his tenure, he was always effusive in his praise for his players, and he said he was ecstatic about the Martians after the game.
“We see them,” Christian said. “Our team sees them, our team loves them. Their role is unbelievably valuable to our team every single day. They’re good players, and they help out, and that’s the beautiful part of it.”
The members of the Martians were just as excited about their increased role.
“It’s been awesome being able to contribute more because, you know, as a competitor that’s what we like to do, so it’s definitely been super enjoyable,” Noel said.
Kenny has particularly benefited from the opportunity, seeing the floor in five more games after the faceoff against the Wolfpack.
“We have gotten to play a little bit more,” Kenny said. “But, yeah, it’s definitely been a lot of fun and a rewarding experience because we can compete every day in practice.”
The Martians might be differentiated by their walk-on status and shared nickname, but they are as much a part of the team as any scholarship player. Even if most of their contributions come during practice, their work doesn’t go unnoticed.
“We’re pretty immersed in the team,” Kenny said. “We get the label ‘Martians,’ but we’re in the same locker room as other guys.”
Noel echoed the same sentiment. The Martians may have gotten a name from the pinnies, but a difference in jersey color does not separate them from their teammates.
“I think Drew [Kenny] is right,” Noel said. “On the court we’re Martians, and we do scout together, but we’re spread out throughout the team, and we have scholarship guys that each of us is close to that we spend time with just like on any other team.”
With their increased in-game contributions this year, the Martians have gained some unprecedented media coverage. For a group that’s used to working hard while receiving little recognition in return, the attention is a welcome change.
“We know how hard we work every day, but a lot of the time it doesn’t translate to minutes in the game,” Kenny said. “When people think of BC basketball, they don’t really think of the Martians. It’s definitely rewarding to get a little bit of recognition for all the effort that we put in.”
Although, knock on wood, COVID-19-related absences will hopefully be a thing of the past by the time next year’s season rolls around, the current state of the Eagles’ roster may create similar opportunities for the Martians next season.
With only six players who played significant minutes this season returning and only one commit for this recruiting cycle, the math is not in BC’s favor. The Eagles will need minutes from somewhere, and the Martians may hear their numbers called more often again.
Holtze and Jackowitz are both departing as seniors, but the other four Martians will be back and raring to go.
Regardless of how the roster turns out next season, the Eagles will have something that nobody can take away from them.
“I think we have the funniest team in the country,” Noel said with a laugh.
After BC went 0-19 in conference play in the 2015-16 season and was knocked out of the first round of the ACC tournament, senior Dennis Clifford famously said that his favorite part about playing college basketball was “going out to eat.”
The Eagles showed much more fight this year than the 2016 BC team did but Kenny, almost to the word, also described how important that time as a team can be.
“On the court is one thing, but like off the court is just as fun for me and like the relationships you get to build, going out to eat with each other and it’s a lot of fun.”
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor
Other Images Courtesy of BC Athletics, Michael Dwyer / AP Photo