WILLIAMSBURG – After touching down in Traverse City, Michigan several years ago to recruit Sean Sheldon to William and Mary, Tribe men's basketball coach Tony Shaver spotted a red fox darting across the road as he pulled out of the airport in a rental car.
"Sometimes you think of Michigan and big cities," Shaver said. "It's a little more rural than you might anticipate."
Sheldon spends a lot of time trying to convince his teammates and college friends that Traverse City, located in the northwest part of the state's Lower Peninsula near Lake Michigan, is a more exciting place than they expect.
It's fitting for a 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior center that is also more than meets the eye, and more than meets the box score.
The long-haired, tattooed, country music-loving surfer that grew up bird hunting in the Great Lake State is just fifth for William and Mary in scoring average (8.3) and third in rebounds (4.8). Those figures only begin to illustrate how significant the co-captain's role is for the fifth-seeded Tribe, which begins Colonial Athletic Association tourney play Saturday in Baltimore against fourth-seeded James Madison.
Traverse City, known for its National Cherry Festival, has a population of about 15,000 in a county of more than 90,000.
Sheldon grew up being coached in basketball by each of his parents; his mother in youth leagues, and father when he progressed to AAU.
When basketball wasn't dominating his extracurricular activities, Sheldon was goose hunting with family, snowboarded in the winter or boating in the summertime with his best friend Riley Bullough, now a starting linebacker for Michigan State's football team. The pair announced their college choices simultaneously as St. Francis High School seniors.
"No matter what time of year it is, there's always something to do," Sheldon said. "It's a small-town kind of vibe, but it's a great place to grow up."
He expected to be met in the South with a surplus of college contemporaries that would share his interest in attending country music concerts.
Not so much.
"When I try to turn that on in the locker room, it gets shut down pretty quickly," Sheldon said.
Sheldon's fellow captain, friend and roommate since freshman year Terry Tarpey was in the "anything but country" camp.
"I've grown to like it a little bit more now," the Stamford, Conn. native said, "but yeah, I've spent a lot of time in the city. I didn't hear much country."
Tarpey and Sheldon make trips to the beach when time allows and Sheldon's surfing habits were cultivated on a family trip to Hawaii.
Sheldon sported a buzz cut when he arrived on campus, but now he's looking more California than Michigan, although he expects to cut around 10 inches of his hair before graduation and donate it to Locks of Love.
His five tattoos each hold personal significance, including one on his arm with the words of Psalm 23:4, which he read at his grandmother's funeral his freshman year. He missed the CAA tourney to be at her funeral in Chicago and later on, the words he had struggled to read there kept coming back to him.
Another of his inked designs features a basketball and the word "Blessed."
"To me, it's that I'm blessed with these opportunities," Sheldon said. "People don't get to go out on the court and play college basketball every day. I am blessed enough to be able to do that and have that opportunity at William and Mary."
Sheldon was named the Tribe's Most Improved Player for 2013-14 after playing a much more significant role than his freshman campaign.
He played two seasons behind All-CAA player Tim Rusthoven before locking down a starting job last year.
Sheldon's scoring average is up two points from a season ago, but said he has learned basketball is much more than just tallying points, especially in Shaver's motion offense where post players are expected to handle the ball nearly every possession.
"We kind of just play off of him," Tarpey said. "He has the freedom at any time to break down the offense and score with one of his hook shots or post moves. The ball is in his hands a lot. He's making a lot of backdoor passes or handoffs and rolling.
"He's a key part of why we're really good because people have to guard him. People know that he can go by their guy if they're not ready to guard him."
Sheldon's assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7) is second-best in the Tribe's starting lineup behind point guard David Cohn, who owns one of the league's best.
Sheldon is only third for William and Mary in rebounding, but factor in the players in front of him: his pal Tarpey, who is tied for third in the league in boards and junior Omar Prewitt, who has emerged as one of the CAA's best playmakers. Shaver also noted that Sheldon often is competing with the opponents' best rebounder. Sheldon may not rack up the same numbers as Tarpey, but he's putting a body on the other team's big man, keeping him from coming down with the ball.
Shaver said Sheldon has worked as hard as any player in the program the last two years. He has grown stronger, a more vocal leader and above all, he's playing with more confidence.
In William and Mary's first bout with James Madison, a 68-62 home win in January, Sheldon scored a crucial bucket inside on an assist from Tarpey to put the Tribe up four points in the final minute. Up until that point, Sheldon only had four points on 2-of-6 shooting.
"In the past, we probably wouldn't have had him on the floor right then because if he missed some shots early, he didn't continue to look to score the ball," Shaver said. "But he maintained his confidence. Obviously, Terry and the guys kept their confidence in him because that was a huge shot in that ballgame."
He's improved so much Shaver told him a month ago how profound his absence on the floor can be.
"Sean's reached a point where we just can't play without him," Shaver said. "He's that good."
Sheldon believes the steady progress he's made each year for William and Mary indicates his best basketball is still to come.
After graduation, Sheldon aspires to play professionally overseas as his brother, Ian, did.
Sheldon is majoring in kinesiology and health sciences as well as elementary education. Previously, he was on a pre-med track, but added the education route on the advice of an academic advisor.
So Sheldon, a CAA All-Academic Team selection, has been working as a student-teacher with Stonehouse Elementary's fifth-graders. He hasn't yet decided what path he'll take after pro ball, although he may want to teach, coach and pursue a doctorate in administration, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Don Sheldon, who served as a Fairfax County Schools superintendent.
Sheldon hopes he'll leave William and Mary as a member of the first Tribe team to appear in the NCAA Tournament after finishing a runner-up in the CAA tourney each of the past two season. It's hard for him not to envision the moment.
"It would be extremely exciting from a personal standpoint; a senior, going out on top," Sheldon said. "But also for everyone that I've played with here, everyone that's made the program what it is. It would be incredible for everyone involved in Tribe Basketball. We have to take it one game at a time, but I do catch myself thinking about it sometimes."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.