Contributed Photo. Jeff Walz, a 1990 Highlands graduate, has led the University of Louisville women's basketball team to a 148-65 record in six seasons and national championship game appearances in 2009 and 2013.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The next step for Jeff Walz and the University of Louisville Cardinals women’s basketball program may be a national championship.
But in terms of national prominence, the 1990 Highlands graduate said he believes the program has arrived. The Cardinals along with the Connecticut Huskies and Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the only three teams that have played in two national championship games in the last five years.
“We feel that we’ve made that next step,” Walz said. “That says a lot about our program in that we’re here and plan on challenging for Final Fours.”
Louisville has been on the rise ever since Walz arrived in 2007. The Cardinals lost to Connecticut in both title game appearances in 2009 and this past season by a 93-60 count on April 9 in New Orleans. The Cardinals are 148-65 in those six seasons. They’d never been past the second round of the NCAA Tournament prior to his arrival.
Walz’ Division I coaching career began in 1995 when he served as an assistant under Paul Sanderford at Western Kentucky University. He had stops at Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland. He served as Associate Head Coach under Brenda Frese at Maryland before coming to Louisville.
Maryland won the national championship in 2006. Walz said he learned a lot of his x’s and o’s from Sanderford and a lot about recruiting from Frese.
But the 41-year-old Walz likes being within an hour and a half of his Fort Thomas roots. His oldest brother Scott lives in Louisville and his brother Brian lives in Fort Thomas and his sister Jaime Walz-Richey lives in Northern Kentucky, where she teaches at Highlands and has been the head girls basketball coach since 2002.
“It’s great because my family gets to come down and see a lot of games,” Walz said. “It’s nice to have family close by.”
Louisville has struggled against Big East powers Notre Dame and Connecticut during his tenure. The Cardinals are 0-10 against Connecticut and 1-8 against Notre Dame. Walz said that comes down to recruiting players that can battle against teams like Geno Auriemma and the Huskies.
“They’re a great team,” Walz said of Connecticut. “Geno (Auriemma) has done a remarkable job with them. Our goal is to beat them. When you beat them, you’re normally going to be one of the top two teams in the country. He’s fortunate to normally get the top players in the country each year.”
Walz said the first recruiting priority is obviously Kentucky. Then the staff works out to the surrounding states like Indiana and Ohio before going nation-wide. They have players from New York, Missouri, Illinois and New York.
One player that Walz won out against Auriemma is sophomore Sara Hammond. Hammond chose to stay in Kentucky. She led Rockcastle County to the state championship in 2011.
“We have the best coaching staff in the country,” Hammond said. “I’d put them up against any other coaches in the country and I’d still choose ours every single day.”
Louisville finished 29-9 this past year beating defending champion Baylor in addition to national power Tennessee on the way to the national championship game. The Cardinals battled injuries to key players along the way. They graduate three seniors, but return Hammond and standout Shoni Schimmel.
Walz said the support in Kentucky’s largest city is great. He said Louisville Director of Athletics Tom Jurich supports all the sports. Louisville men’s basketball Head Coach Rick Pitino came to New Orleans to watch the title game after leading the Cardinals to the national title over Michigan the night before.
“We’re fortunate to have an athletic department that supports each other,” Walz said. “The coaches and student-athletes support each other. That’s what makes it so special.”
In coaching, Walz said he wants to make sure the players know there is a difference between things on the court and off the court. It’s about basketball on the court.
“We work on building relationships off the court so they understand that he might get on me on the basketball court demanding me to do the right things,” Walz said. “They know I care about them off the court. Once you get to that point, the players understand that on the floor, it’s not personal.”
Walz said the game strategy is different for each opponent. The Cardinals might play a Man-to-Man Defense against some teams and zone defenses against other teams.
Louisville has some new challenges going forward. The Cardinals enter the American Athletic Conference for one year before entering the Atlantic Coast Conference. Some former Big East teams will play in the AAC next year.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to join the ACC in two years,” Walz said. “It’s going to be a great basketball league. It will be good for all of our sports. It’s going to be a challenge. There’s no question about it, but one we’re excited to take on.”
Walz has two kids in daughter Kaeley and son Jacob. Walz said they live with their mother in Charleston, S.C. now.
“I’m very fortunate. My kids are fantastic,” Walz said. “She’s a fabulous mother. They were with me the entire NCAA Tournament run so they enjoy coming to the games and being around the players. It’s like their second home.”
Walz married for Vanderbilt basketball player Lauren Lueders in September. Lueders was a senior on the 09-10 Vanderbilt team.
“She’s been great,” Walz said of his wife. “She understand (basketball) having played it herself. She understand the time commitment that comes with it. She also traveled with us the entire NCAA Tournament run.”
Nashville is the home of the Final Four in 2014. Walz said he hopes the Cardinals make that journey down Interstate-65 next year.