AJ Martinka has found himself playing some new roles in his first year of collegiate basketball.
For example, a week ago he was tasked with simulating the play of Stanford’s burly star power forward Reid Travis during practice. Considering Travis measures 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds while Martinka weighs in at 6-5 and 195, that was quite the challenge.
“Yeah, he’s a little bigger than I am,” Martinka quipped.
But Martinka’s efforts must have paid off, as his Colorado Buffaloes upended the Cardinal 64-56 last Sunday. And it’s an illustration of Martinka’s determination to do whatever it takes to be an NCAA Division I basketball player.
The 2017 Stanwood High School graduate is doing mostly grunt work as a freshman walk-on at Colorado. But he’s cherishing every moment as a member of a team competing at college basketball’s highest level.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Martinka said when reached in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this week. “I’m so thankful God has this plan for me, and I’m thankful to the coaches and staff for the opportunity.”
Martinka was a standout during his four years at Stanwood, playing on varsity all four seasons as the Spartans won the Wesco title all four years and reached state three times. Last year he was a first-team All-Wesco 3A-2A and first-team All-Area player for a Stanwood team that took fourth at the 3A state tournament.
Martinka’s accomplishments as a Spartan brought multiple offers to play at NCAA Division II and Division III schools. However, that wasn’t Martinka’s dream. Martinka’s goal was to play at a Division I college.
“I wanted to be part of a Division I basketball team,” Martinka said. “The D-II and D-III options were available, which was very flattering, I was definitely grateful for that. But I wanted to pursue opportunities at the D-I level.”
So Martinka went to work last spring. With the help of his dad Reid, a former Division I assistant coach at Houston and Vanderbilt, Martinka began making connections and sending highlight videos to various Division I schools to try and get a walk-on spot. Among the first schools he sent video to was Colorado, a team he admired while watching Pac-12 basketball on television.
Colorado responded, inviting Martinka to visit campus last June. Martinka visited, liked what he saw, and shortly after the Buffaloes invited Martinka to join the team as a preferred walk-on, meaning he wouldn’t have to try out for the team. Martinka, who had never set foot in Colorado prior to his visit, jumped at the chance.
“When coach (Tad) Boyle and his staff reached out and extended the offer as a preferred walk-on, that was exactly what I wanted to do,” Martinka said. “I was so thankful for the opportunity. I had been in contact with other colleges, but they were the first school to offer. I felt they trusted me by being the first D-I to offer and I accepted immediately. I was excited to be part of it.”
Though Martinka is a walk-on — one of two on the roster — he says he’s treated just like any other member of the team. He traveled with the team last summer when it went to Italy for 10 days, playing in games against European professional teams. He participates fully in practices — though he has his share of scout-team duties — and dresses for games. And he travels with the team on road trips, meaning he’ll have something of a homecoming Saturday when Colorado comes to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies.
Martinka has only gotten into one game so far this season, but he feels he’s holding his own against his scholarship teammates.
“I think I can compete just as well as anyone else on the team,” Martinka said. “I think I’m just as good as some of the guys on the team. In practices we go at it, and in scrimmages we’re battling and all the guys want to get better, and I want to help make them better. That’s my job in practice, to do whatever necessary for the guys to be prepared for who they’re playing next.”
It may not be the most glamorous job in college basketball, but it has Martinka playing at the Division I level, and that’s what he wanted all along.