Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the newspaper version of the Gazette in December.
CEDAR FALLS — The transformation from rivals to friends is never an easy one. Kevin Youkilis had to trade his Red Sox for White ones before finally donning an entangled “NY” instead of a “B.”
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James butted heads for Eastern Conference supremacy for seven years before the 2008 Olympics planted a seed that together, they could dominate the league.
On a smaller scale, Wes Washpun and Matt Bohannon competed regularly for state supremacy in boys basketball. The competition sprouted when the two players were third graders and spanned longer than the Wade-James rivalry era.
“From third grade on all the way to high school. We played each other three times my senior year,” Bohannon said. “It’s just something, we know each other very well.”
Each had a partner-in-crime. In high school, Washpun had current Iowa Hawkeye Josh Oglesby at Cedar Rapids Washington, while Bohannon teamed up with North Carolina freshman Marcus Paige at Linn-Mar.
In AAU ball, they switched partners. Washpun donned the same uniform as Paige and Bohannon joined forces with Oglesby.
“Don’t tell him this, but we always beat him growing up,” Bohannon said.
Well — much like LeBron — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Washpun returned to Iowa this year after spending last year as a Tennessee Volunteer. The Cedar Rapids-native transferred to Northern Iowa, where he’ll play alongside his former rival Bohannon, but it had nothing to do with winning or losing.
“It was definitely a little strange. Of course, like being in college, this is my first year of college and everything was kind of brand new, and I was in a new place,” Washpun said. “I met a lot of great people. I had a good time. I enjoyed my time down there a lot, it just didn’t feel completely right.”
At the beginning it seemed to be a perfect match. While Washpun finished his senior year at Washington, Tennessee went through a regime change. The Volunteers fired Bruce Pearl for lying to NCAA investigators and hired Cuonzo Martin, who had just earned the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year at Missouri State.
Before heading to Tennessee, Martin recruited Washpun as a junior. Martin’s change of address didn’t displace the interest he had in the Warriors’ senior guard.
“He offered me a couple days after he gotten the job (at Tennessee),” Washpun said. “I felt like our relationship and our connection really was a big factor in me going down there more than anything.”
Washpun appeared in 17 games with the Volunteers. He averaged 0.9 points per game to go with 1.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 10.2 minutes. Despite the meager numbers, he held his own against elite competition. He played in four Southeastern Conference games and all three Maui Invitational contests in which Tennessee participated.
He recorded four assists, two rebounds and block against Chaminade, followed by four points and no turnovers against No. 6 Duke and No. 8 Memphis.
But when the season ended so did his time with the Volunteers.
“After we were all done I started talking to the coach about maybe not coming back,” Washpun said. “He understood. I expressed the need to be closer to my family and he said ‘Family first.’ He was a very understanding guy and I appreciate him doing that.”
Tennessee granted Washpun his release and like he experienced a couple years prior, schools came calling. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nebraska, Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State and Creighton showed interest in the collegiate free agent. Northern Iowa joined the group immediately, making an offer to Washpun the day of his release.
“When I talked to him the first time I could hear some excitement in his voice. I knew we wanted him before I talked to him,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. “We were excited about him, but when I got him on the phone for the first time and heard that excitement in his voice, I knew we really wanted him.”
Jacobson recruited Washpun out of high school so a relationship already existed between the two. Even before the post-Tennessee recruitment a bond between the two lingered, as Washpun grew up watching the Panthers play.
“At the end of the day, I felt like I had to come home, closer to my family,” Washpun said. “Being familiar with the UNI program, I just felt like this was the place I needed to be.”
Due to transfer rules, Washpun is required to sit out a year before becoming eligible to take the court. His old rival Bohannon dealt with the same situation last season as he redshirted his freshman year.
“I’ve tried, any pointers I can give him. Our experience is the same and he’s already played Division I so there’s not much really that I can give him on the collegiate level,” Bohannon said. “Besides work as hard as you can and this redshirt year is going to be long and don’t judge it on the day, judge it on the year.”
Like Bohannon last year, Washpun can practice with the team. Jacobson expects his sophomore guard to be one of the best defensive stoppers in the Missouri Valley Conference when he returns to game action.
Sitting out a year can help him jump into that role much faster next season. Physically he can’t compete, but mentally he’s right there.
“It can be an advantage. Not only do I get to sit out, but I get to watch the film on other teams. I get to watch the film on our guys,” Washpun said. “And I get to see the mistakes. I get to see what works and just watching that and the conference, even some of the tougher teams, really is going to help my game, more learning the game than anything.”
And he gets to do all this in a place he feels most comfortable, something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“I’m finally home,” Washpun said. “I’m in a place where I’m going to spend and probably end my college career.”