Walk-on guards Edwards, Waleski awarded scholarships


Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Guards Taylor Edwards and Carolyn Waleski cheer with their teammates. The walk-ons were both awarded scholarships in practice in January.

By Claire O'Brien, Staff Writer

From time to time, videos of walk-on athletes being awarded scholarships make the rounds on social media and garner attention from sports media. Recently, Illinois women’s basketball guards Taylor Edwards and Carolyn Waleski were awarded scholarships in practice.

Edwards, who is from Arcola, Illinois, played softball at Illinois for four years before walking onto the basketball team this year.

Growing up, Edwards played a variety of sports, including track, volleyball, basketball and softball alongside her older sister.

“I was always playing against older people,” Edwards said. “I enjoyed being pushed and challenged in all those sports.”

When Edwards was in middle school, she began following sports more avidly and realized she wanted to play college sports. Softball became her primary sport but she still played and enjoyed basketball.

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Edwards was a “bandwagon fan” in softball and wanted to go to a warmer climate school for college. She attended softball camps at Baylor and Florida but got an offer from Illinois.

Edwards would have been able to play basketball and softball at a smaller school, but she wanted to go to a larger school to continue her athletic career. She decided on Illinois and appreciated its proximity to her family.

Once Edwards was settled on campus, she discovered she wasn’t ready to hang up the basketball shoes quite yet.

“My freshman year of college, I really, really missed basketball,” Edwards said. “Honestly, I prayed about it a lot. I talked to my parents, and just kept the secret close to people that I knew could keep it a secret (since I) didn’t think there was much I could do about it.”

Edwards wanted to stay focused on softball during her undergraduate years, but was open to the possibility of moving to the basketball team after she graduated.

She didn’t play club or intramural basketball during her time at Illinois and did not want people to find out about her potential Illinois basketball career so she would go to the ARC after softball practice and shoot baskets.

When Edwards’ time on the softball field was up, she approached head coach Nancy Fahey about the possibility of joining the basketball team. Edwards knew she wasn’t guaranteed to get a scholarship but was still eager to play basketball at Illinois.

Regardless, Edwards is glad things worked out the way they did.

“I knew that even if I didn’t get (a scholarship), the opportunity just to play and be on the team was a dream come true,” she said. “Getting the scholarship was just icing on the cake.”

Like Edwards, Waleski played sports with her siblings and also was a multi-sport athlete in high school.

As a child, Waleski would play basketball with her sisters but was more interested in golf. It wasn’t until more recently that she thought basketball would be her sport.

“Up until, I think, junior year of high school, I wouldn’t say so,” Waleski said. “I was really into golf in high school and I thought that that was where my future was headed (because) women in golf is, like, a huge deal and there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

As Waleski progressed through high school, she began to get Division II and Division III offers for basketball but realized if she was going to play college basketball, she, like Edwards, would want to play at a “Power 5” school.

Waleski, a sophomore in Engineering, was originally drawn to Illinois due to its engineering program, but also attended Illinois basketball camps and was able to join the team upon coming to campus.

“I knew Illinois had the best engineering program, pretty much in the country, for what I wanted to study,” Waleski said. “I got in contact with the coach and was able to walk on, so it just kind of all fit together perfectly.”

Illinois happened to have two scholarships available and coach Fahey decided to award them to Edwards and Waleski before the second semester began.

Fahey said she told Waleski and Edwards in one-on-one conversations before practice and planned to share the news with the team after. However, she observed that Edwards and Waleski could spill the beans prematurely, so Fahey instead told the team at the beginning of practice.

Even if the announcement didn’t go precisely to plan, that was the moment it sunk in for Waleski.

“Once it was in front of the whole team, I broke down in tears,” Waleski said. “It’s a lot of work and getting that reward is just like something I’m so grateful for, and it was, it was really cool just to share that experience with all my teammates.”


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