By Mark Daniels
At an open tryout during his freshman year at UMass-Lowell, Robbie Walton was playing in a 2-on-1 drill at the Costello Athletic Center when he caught coach Greg Herenda’s eye.
The Boston Latin product faked a shot and dished the ball off for an easy basket. Herenda turned to one of his assistants and said, “I want that kid.”
Unbeknownst to him, Walton had other plans and turned down the chance to join the team.
The South Boston native was at UMass-Lowell on an academic scholarship and thought it would be too much trying to balance both the books and basketball. After a week of practice, however, Herenda turned to his then-assistant Necus Mayne and reiterated, “Go get that kid.”
“I just had a funny feeling about him, and that’s how it started,” Herenda said.
During the past four years, Walton has transformed from walk-on to scholarship player to team captain. And if tonight’s Northeast-10 tournament semifinal at top-seeded Franklin Pierce is his final collegiate game, the guard will end his career as one of the best defenders the program ever has seen.
“I couldn’t imagine college without it,” Walton said. “It’s a lot of work and everything, but at the same time, with all the great friends I’ve made and relationships I’ve built, it’s definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Herenda describes Walton as a tough South Boston kid with a huge heart and no holes in his game. At 6-foot, 165 pounds, Walton might not look like your typical basketball player at first glance. His stats (7.4 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game and 2.1 steals a game) suggest otherwise.
Walton prides himself on defense, saying it feels just as good shutting someone down as it does scoring 20 points. He led the Northeast-10 with 2.53 steals a game last season and is fourth this season. His 181 career takeaways put him eighth in program history.
“He’s worked his rear end off, and he’s improved on a daily basis for four years,” Herenda said. “He’s really everything you’d want in a walk-on that became a significant senior, captain, scholarship player. The transformation that he’s made from the first moment I saw him try out in Costello to this moment, it’s just really amazing.”
Throughout his collegiate career, Walton frequently has made visits to Boston Latin, where coach Brendan Smith says he’s an inspiration for the students. Last week, Smith brought his team to Lowell to see Walton play against Bentley on senior night. Walton had 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals in the River Hawks’ 85-76 victory.
“I’m not surprised because he’s always in the right place at the right time,” Smith said. “He just finds a way. He’s a winner. When he was at the Latin School we won a ton of games, and now at U-Lowell, they won a ton of games up there. Robbie wins.”
At Boston Latin, Walton was a two-time Dual County League All-Star and helped guide the Wolfpack to a 51-19 record in three seasons. Despite his success, he had little attention from college coaches. He says the success he’s had comes from hard work and motivation.
“I guess motivation doesn’t exactly hurt,” Walton said. “I didn’t get too many looks coming out of high school. I wanted to prove people wrong. And at the same time, talent-wise, I’m not as good as some of the players so I have to work even harder to get to that level.”
“Even within our league, the other coaches really respect him,” Herenda added. “Guys will just come up to me and say, ‘Robbie Walton,’ and then put a smile on their face and be like, ‘Wow, that kid’s tough.’”