Too often, the sentiment surrounding moving from the prep ranks to college hoops is that it’s go D-1 or surrender on the idea of ever playing significant basketball.

UC Santa Cruz senior forward Sam Gabbard is a powerful exhibit in turning this type of thinking on its head. In the midst of earning a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, he was recently named the Association of Division Three Independents Player of the Year as well as being selected one of 10 finalists for the Josten’s Trophy honoring Best of All DIII Players.

At 6-foot-4 out of Vacaville High, Gabbard averaged 21.3 points plus 10.6 rebounds and also led the Slugs in minutes played, overall shooting, three-point accuracy and assists.

However his exemplary college hoops tenure almost never came to be due to lack of opportunity. After participating with just his high school team during summers, no college coaches reached out. Gabbard took matters into his own hands as a senior and sent out emails making his case to numerous coaches. Just one coach replied—UC Santa Cruz Coach Ron DuBois and he invited Gabbard to attend a hoops camp on the UCSC campus.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” Gabbard explained. “I didn’t know how much my skills would work (at the college level). So I drove to Santa Cruz on a Sunday and there were 15 other players there.”Afterwards, Gabbard was invited “to be part of what they were building.”

“Looking at coach’s background, the entire episode speaks to who he (DuBois) is,” Gabbard explained. “He (initially) walked on at Arizona State and became captain of his basketball team as a senior.”

The Slugs, a longtime non-competitive DIII program, won 17 games in 2017-18 (when Gabbard as a junior scored 17.5 points and grabbed 10.6 boards per game) and 14 this season. Every season since DuBois came aboard seven years ago has resulted in double figure victories.

Gabbard was named a captain as a sophomore. “Coach nominated me and every practice he challenged me to be vocal. I used words and action as I got older. Being vocal and backing it up got respect from my teammates.”Also credit Gabbard’s competitiveness and back-down-to-no-one zeal in this regard.

But injury struck coming off that sophomore year in which he averaged an impressive 11.7 points plus 7.8 boards. “I’ve always had a problem of overworking myself and I injured my back doing a dead lift. I had three injections in my lower back and the third one finally helped enough. For 13 months (including an entire season), I didn’t touch a basketball but I realized my love for the game.” Gabbard’s father is a physical therapist and became a vital cog in his son getting back on the court. “I also gained a lot of weight, going from 205 to 242 but eventually trimmed back to 230 pounds of solid muscle. It completely changed my game.”

He’ll complete his degree involving data science and data analytics in the fall. After that, “my ideal job would be analyzing data with a sports organization.” Gabbard has already attended the esteemed annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference founded in part by current Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey.

But the human element remains critical for Gabbard. “I lost six of my closest friends to graduation last year. We came in together. Getting to know teammates on a deeper level is so enjoyable.”

So what will be replacing the void coming with his absence from organized basketball? “I don’t know but it’s definitely a real thing. I’m a competitive guy and I go to open gym to play and have fun. But I’ll miss the grind with my teammates.”

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