Speidel ready for new chapter: Transition to college life

As Josh Speidel hoisted up a series of 15-foot shots in his driveway on Wednesday afternoon, there was a hitch in his motion as he raised the ball up into position.

Many of his attempts glided through the net like a Steph Curry jumper would, and others missed the mark. Given where Speidel was a little more than a year ago — severely injured in an auto accident and facing a difficult rehabilitation — being able to shoot a basketball at all is a tremendous milestone.

He’s about to reach another one.

On Friday morning, Josh and his parents will pack up a car and make the 14-hour drive northeast to Burlington, Vermont, where he will begin taking classes at the University of Vermont.

For the first time since a car crash Feb. 1, 2015, left him with major traumatic brain injuries, Speidel will be leaving Columbus — and his parents — behind.

It’s something that all college freshmen have to deal with, But in Speidel’s case, the idea of the bird taking flight and saying goodbye to his nest has an added significance.

A little more than a year ago, there was a great deal of uncertainty about Speidel’s future. By next week, he will have moved into a dorm room in Burlington, started a pair of summer classes and joined the men’s basketball team for offseason workouts.

Speidel traveled alone to Vermont for a short three-day visit in the spring. This time, he’ll be staying quite a bit longer.

“Josh has been working really hard,” said his mother, Lisa Speidel. “We always knew that at some point, he would do this. For it to be just a short 16 months later is pretty miraculous.”

“I think the family and us, we all agreed that this was what we needed to try to do next,” Vermont men’s basketball coach John Becker added. “It’s a credit to Josh that he’s willing to step out and do this. A lot of kids in his situation would not have the courage to do this, and he does.”

Academically, Josh expects the transition to college courses to be a challenge, just as it is for many other freshmen. But he’s ready to meet that challenge head on, just as he has every other one since last year.

“I know it’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s going to be a struggle sometimes. But I know that the more and more I focus on studying, it will get easier and easier. I’ve just got to put my head down and focus.”

That will be more difficult, Josh recognizes, without his parents and the rest of his family around on a daily basis — but he’s got another support system waiting for him in Vermont.

Becker was one of the driving forces in encouraging the former Columbus North star to take the plunge and come to campus this summer — and the school’s former longtime coach, Tom Brennan, has been writing Josh a letter each week.

Now, Josh will be able to bond in person with Brennan, who lives just up the road from campus in neighboring Colchester.

He also will have some company among three Indiana natives on the Catamounts roster. Senior-to-be Dre Wills played his high school ball at Ben Davis, and Ernie and Everett Duncan from Evansville will be entering their sophomore seasons. Duncan and Speidel had played as AAU teammates.

There would be enough comfort just having those familiar faces around, but Josh said he has received an outpouring of support from countless people in the Green Mountain State, similar to what he has received from Columbus and the statewide basketball community here.

“The whole state of Indiana, and how supportive they’ve been, I don’t think I can describe how thankful I am,” Josh said. “But Vermont’s been the same way, just the prayers and the letters I’ve received from Vermont. It just showed me that I am very loved in my hometown, but also in Vermont and where I will soon call home myself.”

While enrolling in college is a big deal, it’s not the last goal that Josh is trying to achieve. An Indiana All-Star and North’s all-time leading scorer, he was originally recruited by Vermont to play college basketball — and he’s set on doing so.

He’s been able to draw inspiration from Austin Hatch, who nearly died in a plane crash in 2011 but was able to work his way back onto the court at the University of Michigan, where he appeared in five games during the 2014-15 season and scored one point.

Hatch’s story only reinforced Speidel’s belief that a return to the hardwood is within reach.

“The more I learn about Austin Hatch, I realize he’s just as remarkable as me,” Josh said. “He shouldn’t be here, like I shouldn’t. … He’s been a big inspiration, just reading up on him and hearing about his story.”

Lisa Speidel knows that her son faces a long uphill journey if he’s going to realize his goal — but she’s not surprised to see him chasing it, nor will she be surprised to see him succeed.

“From the time that he was a toddler, he’s been so driven,” she said. “And once he makes up his mind that, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’ then we’re going to do it. So whatever we can do to support him, we’re going to do that.

“He still has a long journey to go. He could be dealing with side effects from this traumatic brain injury for the rest of his life, but he’s learning how to compensate and how to use strategies and things for that. So it’s exciting.”

Josh believes that being able to be in the gym with the team and seeing his friends in action will help provide more than enough fuel for him to continue his comeback bid.

“I think that’ll really push me to want to get out there, you know?” he said. “I’ve got to get out there.”

Becker noted that the NCAA gives college athletes five years to play four seasons, and he’s taking whatever steps he can to delay that clock starting. Speidel will not be on Vermont’s active roster this year, but he will be able to participate in just about every other team activity without it counting toward his five years.

Eventually, the clock will start ticking — but the determination is clear in Josh’s voice when the topic of college basketball comes up. He says that he pictures himself out on the court at Patrick Gym, wearing that green and gold uniform, and it’s pretty apparent that he won’t rest until he’s living that vision.

“I’m trying to keep that in sight, just the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

As more and more of his shots find the mark, that light will continue to become clearer. The tunnel is a long one, to be sure, but Josh Speidel already has traversed a good bit of the distance.

It seems foolish to bet against him completing the trip.

“When he signed with us,” Becker said, “I thought he was the best player I’ve ever recruited, and I thought he could be one of the best players ever to play at Vermont. With what it is now, I’m never going to doubt him.”

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.