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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Highlands Alum, Jeff Walz, Brings Louisville to Alma Mater

Walz Guiding Cardinals to Another Solid Season

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Louisville women's basketball Head Coach Jeff Walz (center), a 1990 Highlands alum, watches during the Louisville-NKU game at BB&T Center on Sunday. Walz has guided the Cardinals to 340 wins in his 13th season on the sidelines.
In his 13th season as the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals women's basketball program, 1990 Highlands alum Jeff Walz has not taken for granted the blessings involved with coaching in his home state often in front of family.

Louisville has gone 340-101 since he took the job in 2007 and turned into one of the elite programs in the country. The Cardinals own three NCAA Final Four appearances including runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2013, five elite eight appearances, nine trips to the Sweet 16 and an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament crown in 2018. That success led to a contract extension on June 12, 2018 through the 2024-25 season.

Louisville has missed the NCAA Tournament just once during that time. It came during the 2009-10 season when the Cardinals finished 14-18. That's the lone losing season in Walz' tenure.

Family members are often seen at Louisville home games. But some witnessed a first in Walz' tenure Sunday literally less than 10 miles down the road. Louisville became the first top-10 program to play at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. Walz earned two letters during his playing days at NKU in the early 1990s.

"I like to come to the games to show him that I care and show the team that I like to come to their games. You can tell they all work really hard," said Jenna Richey, Walz' niece and seventh grader at Highlands Middle School. "They each have their own thing that they bring when they play. Some people might not play a lot, but they still cheer on their team. Others might go out and score all the points."

Walz' sister Jaime Walz-Richey is in her 18th season as head coach of the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball program. His brother-in-law Bert Richey is an assistant for the program and niece Meghan Walz is a senior forward on the team.

"I was very fortunate to live in a community that everybody is so supportive of each other," Walz said. "It's a tight-knit group. It was pretty neat to see a lot of my friends here (Sunday). Going through the (Fort Thomas Independent Schools) system, it prepares you not just for college, but for life. It's one of the experiences I'm forever grateful for. The fact that you're challenged academically and then you're also able to compete at a high level athletically. As my career has progressed, you have a solid foundation to always be able to go back to and that's one thing that our school system and our city has provided for me."

Louisville pulled away for an 85-57 victory in the second half to move to 9-1 on the season. The Cardinals led just 37-35 at halftime. They used tenacious defense to pull away forcing 11 turnovers challenging virtually every Northern Kentucky pass and shot. Their size in the middle also played a huge role.

"If we want to compete, it has to to continue. In the second half, instead of reacting to every pass, we were the ones determining what was going to happen," Walz said. "We were a step ahead so we were moving when the ball was in the air. We always say, 'Ball is in the air. You're feet are in the air.' Instead of watching when the ball was in the air, we went and if you want to be a good defensive team, you have to do that. I thought in the second half, we were really, really good."

Louisville won the rebound battle, 42-20. That allowed the Cardinals to get out and score in transition.

The Cardinals entered the game off a 67-60 loss at unranked Ohio State on Thursday. That loss dropped Louisville from second to seventh in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Louisville has played 46 games in the past two seasons. Walz said the data compiled showed the Cardinals gave the 44th best effort out of the 46 games. Walz said one would be good.

"They can't argue that. That's the great thing about it. In the past, you could go to the water fountain, throw some water on your face, get your jersey wet and be like, 'Man. it's been a tough day today.' Now, I've got the catapult," Walz said. "I can tell exactly where your heart rate is, what you're putting into it. It's not good for them in some ways. You can't fake it. Hopefully the technology that we have and not everybody has it will help them get to that because then they know what it takes to play at a high level."

Walz said the team did not play hard Thursday or in the first half against NKU. He said he wants the Cardinals to give an effort as good as the wins over then top-ranked Oregon, Oklahoma State and Texas-Arlington that took place at the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam.

Senior guard Jazmine Jones led Louisville with 21 points. Eleven different players scored for the Cardinals. The staff put out a different starting line-up to shake some things up coming off the Ohio State loss.

"We know Coach (Walz) loves us off the court. He treats us like his own kids," Jones said. "He loves us so much. On the court, we're going to get a different personality out of him and all our coaches. They just want to win. We know they have families to feed."

Five seniors grace the roster for Louisville. The roster is made of players from all over the country and one from Japan.

"If you want this to be a bad year, I'll be back for five more," Walz said. "That's a lot of what you have to get these players to understand. It doesn't matter what I want. I want to get to a Final Four. I want a chance to compete for a national championship again. But it doesn't matter what I want. It's what they want and it's not easy. It's just the facts."

Walz said the Cardinals have four new players making an impact in the rotation. They are redshirt senior Yacine Diop, freshman guard Norika Konno, sophomore guard Elizabeth Balogun and sophomore forward Elizabeth Dixon.

Dixon and Balogun received immediate eligibility after transferring out of a tough situation at Georgia Tech. Diop transferred in from Pittsburgh, but suffered a season-ending injury four games into last season.

"They have an idea of how things are done someplace else and I promise you we probably don't do things the same way because our expectations are at a level they've never had to experience before. So it's taken a little bit of time," Walz said. "As a staff, we're going to give them everything we have. That's not going to change. We're going to break down every game film. We're going to do workouts. We're going to have practice prepared. But when we step out here, they've got to do it."

Walz talked about how every program preaches family. But Walz said the staff takes that to another level.

Walz recently told Hailey Van Lith of Wenatchee, Washington he'd come to her first game if she committed to Louisville. She is one of four players coming into the program next season.

Van Lith's first game for the Cashmere (Washington) Bulldogs took place on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. PST against Union Gap (Washington) La Salle. Cashmere won 57-37. Walz caught a flight back to Cincinnati to rejoin the team for the game Sunday. Walz flew to Seattle and drove two and half hours for the game.

"It's what we do," Walz said. "When we tell our players we're going to do something as a staff, we do it and that's why they put up with me when it comes to the basketball floor because they know I just want them to be great."

Van Lith won Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Washington last season. As a junior, Van Lith led Cashmere to the Washington Class 1-A state semifinals and a 23-3 record.

"That showed their commitment. It showed I made the right decision," Van Lith said. "They really take care of their players at U of L. I totally trust them."

Walz has not been shy about stating opinions on various issues surrounding basketball. He served notice that families might want to watch what they put on social media among other things.

"Families are number one in our book," Walz said. "We not only recruit good players, but good families and if you're crazy, we don't recruit you. That goes for parents, too because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Kids can be sweet as can be now. But if mom and dad are crazy, I guarantee you when they get to be (grown adults), they'll be crazy too."

Northern Kentucky fell to 4-5 on the season. But Norse Head Coach Camryn Whitaker said Walz also wants to see the Norse program succeed. Whitaker is in her fourth season as head coach of NKU. The Norse finished 11-18 last season.

"When we make the NCAA tournament eventually, we're going to play a team like Louisville. They need to know what that feels like," Whitaker said. "Once they get going with those turnovers, it's like domino. They just get rolling. They made their run and that's how they put teams under. That's what great teams do."

Whitaker pointed out Louisville led by 30 in the first quarter against NKU in the Derby City last year. She said trailing by two at half shows the progress the team has made. Whitaker challenged NKU to not lose by 30 and keep Louisville under 90 points. She said small victories like that go a long way. Whitaker admitted NKU would have to play very well to win compared to Louisville not having to play great. She went through a rebuild at the University of Dayton as an assistant.

Walz took over a Louisville program that finished 27-8 in the 2006-07 season. The Cardinals lost 67-58 to Arizona State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that year. Walz guided Louisville to a 26-10 mark and the first-ever Sweet 16 appearance in school history in his first season.

"When Coach (Walz) got the job at Louisville, Louisville wasn't what Louisville is now. He's built that program into what it is," Whitaker said. "He did that by recruiting top-level talent that fit his style of play that fit his culture and what he wanted for his program. That's what is hard for people to understand. We went from Division II to Division I from the Atlantic Sun to the Horizon League and the Horizon League is so competitive at the mid-major level in women's basketball. Our process has taken longer than I know some people would like or want to see, but we are in year four. I am thrilled with where we are."

Whitaker pointed out that the current group is trying to help NKU reach that next level. She said she's having more fun as head coach for the Norse than she's ever had there.

Two Northern Kentucky players saw action against the vaunted Louisville pressure defense. They are sophomore 5-foot-8-inch point guard Ally Niece (a 2018 Simon Kenton graduate) and 5-5 sophomore point guard Taylor Clos (a 2018 Campbell County alum).

"Coming into it, we were just like if you have an open shot, you have to be confident enough to shoot it," Niece said. "I think more in the second half since we were so close, I think that we were kind of like pressure, pressure, pressure when we should just let it go. You have to do that against a team like Louisville, especially with the shot clock, which has been an adjustment for me coming out of high school. We did that more in the first half as opposed to the second."

Louisville plays at in-state arch-rival Kentucky on Sunday. Game time is 1 p.m. in Lexington.

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