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  • Nich Hornsby from Irvine

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    Eric Stuteville, right, guarded by teammate Ryan Okwudibonye during practice in October, .

It’s a roller coaster ride for highly touted Sac State freshmen

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 - 9:19 pm

Rare wins over Weber State and Northern Arizona recently offered a microcosm of the highs and lows Nick Hornsby and Eric Stuteville have experienced as true freshmen playing basketball for Sacramento State.

Both had career games and played valuable minutes in the 78-75 overtime win against Weber State on Feb. 1 as Dylan Garrity’s 75-footer at the buzzer went viral nationally on television and the Internet.

The 6-foot-11 Stuteville from Orangevale had season highs of 14 points and nine rebounds in 30 minutes, and the 6-7 Hornsby from Irvinewent for a season-best 11 points, including a critical putback in overtime, in 26 minutes. The duo helped the Hornets upset the Big Sky Conference leader and snap a 12-game losing streak to the Wildcats.

“For coach (Brian Katz) to keep us in like that, you could feel he was trusting us more, that he believed in us,” Hornsby said. “That just helped our confidence.”

But in Thursday’s 87-70 win over Northern Arizona – only the Hornets’ second win in 19 games against the Lumberjacks – Stuteville finished with two points and two rebounds in 13 minutes, and Hornsby had two rebounds and no points in eight minutes.

Although Stuteville and Hornsby played critical minutes late in regulation and overtime against Weber State, neither was on the floor when Northern Arizona made a late second-half run before the Hornets regrouped for the one-sided win.

The limited playing time had less to do with what Hornsby and Stuteville failed to do than how well their more experienced teammates played in front of them.

As the Hornets (9-11, 5-6) try to complete a rare four-game home win streak (they also beat Idaho State on Jan. 30) against last-place Southern Utah (1-19, 0-11) on Monday night at the Nest, the talented duo remain an interesting work in progress. Katz is banking much of the Hornets’ future on them.

“We feel really fortunate we got these two,” the coach said. “I’ve told the team, with Eric and Nick sitting right there, that they are going to be (all-Big Sky) players at some point. But how fast depends on how quickly they figure things out. I’ve told them they are not getting any special treatment from me.”

Not that they expect any.

Stuteville and Hornsby bring a throwback maturity to their transition from high school stars to role players on an evolving team seeking Sac State’s first winning men’s basketball season of the Division I era.

There are no demands about playing time, and nobody is hanging his head or pouting when things don’t go right for a team that usually starts four juniors and a sophomore.

“I know earlier in the season Nick and I weren’t as comfortable yet in our roles – we weren’t the players we could be,” Stuteville said. “But we’re getting more confident. We realize we’re at this level for a reason.”

While Garrity received national attention for his game-winning heave, the junior point guard and team co-captain heaped praise on how well Hornsby and Stuteville stepped up.

“Our freshman are huge,” Garrity said. “They don’t play or act anything like freshmen. Coach Katz says it all the time in the locker room. He’s going to coach Nick and Eric like they are seniors, because they play like it and act like it.”

Coming out of Tustin High School last year, Hornsby was rated as the state’s 20th-best recruit by ESPN.

“The biggest adjustment for me has been going from being the star player to being a role player who doesn’t need to score much,” Hornsby said. “When I was in high school, I could pretty much do anything I wanted. Not anymore.”

At Casa Roble, Stuteville used his size to intimidate opponents by dunking and blocking shots.

Now the 240-pounder goes against players who are as big and physically more mature. Against Weber State, Stuteville had a dunk attempt practically rejected out of the gym.

“The speed of play is a lot faster; the physicality is a lot greater,” said Stuteville. “But I like that. It just means I have to keep working to get bigger, stronger and faster.”

Stuteville and Hornsby room together, but they by no means feel like first-year students on the Sac State campus.

A big reason they passed on other schools is the Hornets’ camaraderie.

“We all feel very comfortable; we’re like brothers,” Hornsby said. “I think that starts with coach Katz. He wants good guys. That’s something my parents picked up on.”

Most prep recruits leave the area, but Stuteville is glad he stayed close to home. He feels Sac State is building something special.

“Even if I lived on the other side of country, I still would have come here,” Stuteville said. “Win or lose, we stick together. I like my teammates, coaches, the family environment.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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