Feb. 13, 2014
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Bronson Verhines' basketball career has been filled with surprises -- mostly good, a few bad -- but the senior forward is relishing his one and only year at Southern Illinois.
As a freshman at tiny Woodlawn High School near Mt. Vernon, Verhines was a 5-foot-8 point guard on the varsity team. By his junior year, he had grown nine inches and was playing center. In his senior season, he earned Class 1A All-State honors and teamed with younger brother Dawson to lead Woodlawn to the state championship game for the first time in school history.
Late in his senior year, Verhines still hadn't given much thought to playing college basketball. He planned to attend either Illinois or Saint Louis, but switched gears when several Division II schools offered him a scholarship. He chose Kaskaskia College in nearby Centralia, where he averaged 5.0 points his freshman year.
After the season, he decided he needed a break from organized basketball. Verhines transferred to SIUE and spent the next two years focusing on his studies.
"I felt a little overloaded," he explained. "I regret that decision. I should have stuck it out and played two years at Kaskaskia."
On the Edwardsville campus, he played pick-up games at the rec center and joined the club team, though "it didn't fill the void of wanting to be out there competitively and play in front of people." Then Dawson got a scholarship at Rend Lake College, and Bronson was intrigued by the possibility of teaming up with his brother one more time.
Rend Lake head coach Randy House granted him a scholarship, but since he had already completed three years of classes, there wasn't much the school could offer Bronson academically.
"As stupid as it was academically, I went back to Rend Lake to play basketball," he said. "Athletically, it worked out better than I ever could have imagined."
Rend Lake had an amazing 2013 season, finishing with a 30-3 record and capturing the NJCAA Division II national championship. Bronson, who averaged 10.0 points and 9.0 rebounds on the year, was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
"If I had gone to any other school, it would have taken at least three semesters and probably four just to graduate," he said.
Everything changed when he got a call from SIU head coach Barry Hinson.
"I was star-struck," Bronson said. "He told me he was interested in recruiting me and wanted me to get down here for an open gym with the guys. I was blown away and extremely excited about the possibility of playing here."
The pieces quickly fell into place. Since SIU and SIUE are sister schools and have the same degree programs, his credits could easily transfer. A week after his tryout, Bronson received a text message he'll never forget.
"I was working at Staples and I looked at my phone and saw a text from Coach (Tom) Hankins," he smiled. "It said, `Are you ready to be a Saluki?'"
Bronson along with Dawson, who accepted a walk-on offer, were headed to Southern Illinois -- a dream come true.
"There's really no other place I'd rather play," he said. "It was a no-brainer."
The 6-foot-6 forward had an impressive start to his Saluki career. In the opener against Missouri, he made 4-of-5 shots from the field. Then he posted nine points and 11 rebounds against Saint Louis.
"I had no expectations and then all of the sudden I'm starting at Mizzou," he recalled. "That's what you play basketball for. I had a really good game against SLU, the atmosphere was amazing, and I fell in love with the idea of playing. I went home, and even though we lost, I couldn't stop thinking about it and smiling that I was playing Division I basketball against teams I've watched all my life."
He grabbed 10 more rebounds against Austin Peay, but then his season took a devastating turn when he suffered a high ankle sprain in the game against Missouri S&T. It kept him out of the lineup for almost a month, and when he returned in late December, he wasn't the same.
"After I came back from my ankle, I lost a lot of explosion," he said. "I can still box out, but when I jump up to get a rebound, it feels like I'm jumping in a dream. I just can't do it. I don't want to sit here and make excuses as to why I haven't been able to play as effectively, but it has been a contributing factor. With my talents, I need to be 100 percent to be effective at this level."
His playing time has dwindled as the season has progressed and other players, such as Bola Olaniyan, have stepped forward, but Bronson is no less happy to be a Saluki.
"I'll be able to look back on it and say I was able to play for the Salukis," he said. "I won't spend my entire life thinking about whether I could play Division I basketball. I can look back on it and say I gave it my all and it worked out pretty good for me."
Bronson will earn a degree in economics this spring and has already been accepted to graduate school and the MBA program at Loyola. He also added another chapter of memories of playing basketball with his brother.
"You don't really think about it on the court, but when you look back on it, you're able to remember how special it was to have that kind of run with your brother," he said.