Since he’s just a few months away from a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Travis Souza certainly is familiar with the somewhat shaky investment advice of putting all your eggs in one basket, then watching that basket.
In many ways, that philosophy mirrors the way the 2010 Turlock High graduate has approached the past five years of his life. In his case, the eggs were his college career and that basket was basketball.
Souza’s path, from Turlock to a prep school to Division I, isn’t for the weak-of-commitment. But it’s worked for him to such a measure that he will be completing his college basketball career on the sport’s biggest stage – the NCAA Tournament.
The Modesto Bee’s 2010 Stanislaus District player of the year is the starting shooting guard at UC Irvine, which last weekend clinched the school’s first NCAA bid by claiming the Big West Tournament title. The Anteaters (21-12) make their March Madness debut Friday as a No. 13 seed in the East Region against No. 4 seed Louisville (24-8) at Seattle’s Key Arena.
“Just thinking about it makes you smile,” Souza said. “I’ve wanted this forever, especially since UC Irvine had never made it before. We’ve been close. We were in the Big West finals as (a) sophomore and had the team to do it last year. But this year, we were projected to finish fifth, got the 3-seed in the conference tournament and had a lot of guys step up.”
The Anteaters have been listed as up to a 10-point underdog against the Cardinals, but Souza shrugs that aside. Just being in this situation means he already has defeated the odds, and did it through a lot of hard work.
“It’s been a hard process,” he said. “At times, it’s been frustrating, but I was willing to put in the work. We had to drive to the Bay Area twice a week to play AAU ball. I really wanted to play Division I ball and I felt I had the skill level and the drive, and I knew I wasn’t going to be complacent.”
Despite a stellar high school career, culminating with a senior season average of 22 points, six rebounds and six assists for the 6-foot 5-inch marksman, Souza was not highly recruited by Division I schools. So he took a path rarely traveled by West Coast athletes. He enrolled at a prep school.
Common on the East Coast, prep schools generally are used by elite student athletes seeking to boost their test scores or core grades to become eligible to play at the Division I level, while delaying the start of their five-year Division I eligibility clock. But Souza, who graduated from Turlock with a 3.92 GPA and five Advanced Placement certificates, hardly needed remedial work.
He enrolled at New Hampton School in New Hampshire, taking an academic load that allowed him to focus on getting better against the elite basketball talent of the East Coast prep leagues.
“In my case, we were looking for more basketball exposure,” Souza said. “The opportunity was there to take more AP classes, but I kept a normal schedule to stay focused on basketball. The classes weren’t a breeze, but they were fun.”
One of the major things Souza discovered at New Hampton was his dislike of the weather in the Northeast. So despite Division I offers to stay on the East Coast, he made up his mind to return to California, even if it would have to be as a walk-on.
He landed at Irvine, and despite arriving as a walk-on was immediately granted an athletic scholarship.
“At the start of my sophomore year, the scholarship was taken away because it had been already committed to an incoming player, but I got it back my junior year,” Souza said. “That’s kind of a strange way to do it, but it worked.”
He got into 26 games as a freshman, 31 as a sophomore and 35 as a junior, briefly cracking the Anteaters’ starting lineup. This season, he’s been a mainstay in the first five, starting all but one game while averaging 7.4 points and three rebounds. His .464 marksmanship from 3-point range places him in the top 20 among Division I players.
“I had to earn the time,” Souza said. “You always have to have the faith in yourself and believe that you should be playing more. Prep school was a great transition for me because the talent there was phenomenal. I already had the toughness, and when you get the shot to prove yourself, you have to take advantage of it.”
Monday afternoon, Souza – a two-time UCI scholar-athlete award winner – took a final exam that completed his business degree requirements, but he is planning to take a couple of courses in the spring quarter and will walk across the stage in the June 15 graduation ceremony for the Merage School of Business.
He’ll receive his diploma in the Bren Events Center, also the home of Anteater basketball – a fitting final step on the path Souza blazed his own way.
“There are a few things here and there I might have done differently, but with the relationships I’ve built with these guys, it’s hard to say I’d change anything,” Souza said. “It’s hard to argue with the success we’ve had.”
Turlock’s Travis Souza in NCAA Tournament
No. 13 UC Irvine (21-12) vs. No. 4 Louisville (24-8)
When: Friday, 1:10 p.m.
Where: Key Arena, Seattle
Odds: Louisville opened as an 8.5-point favorite