Centenary’s Walsh enjoys homecoming

Posted: November 17, 2012

WINCHESTER — Moments after Centenary (La.) College head coach Adam Walsh finished off guiding his team to a 72-70 win in the semifinals of the BB&T Tip-Off Classic semifinals Thursday night at Shingleton Gymnasium, several of the 35 family members and friends of his in attendance came out of the stands and starting wrapping him in hugs.

Walsh — a 1997 James Wood High School graduate — has clearly received a lot of support en route to becoming a head coach.

Maybe that’s why he’s so good at supporting his players.

“Coach Walsh is our coach, but he’s a also a father-figure type,” said Gents junior guard Jonathan Blount. “He stresses not only basketball, but to be better men.

“I really appreciate that. I didn’t have a father growing up, so just to have that father-figure type around is truly a blessing for me. He’s helped me with a lot. Off the court, with attitude issues, he’s helping me become a better man. He’s a good guy.”

Walsh has clearly been a strong guy, too, because few programs go through the amount of change Centenary has had to deal with.

Walsh joined the Centenary staff as an assistant in 2007, but back then the Gents were an NCAA Division I school.

Centenary announced in July of 2009 that it was going to drop from the NCAA Division I level to NCAA Division III. The transition phase called for Centenary to play two more years at the Division I level at that point. But following the 2009-10 season, former head coach Greg Gary resigned to take a job as an assistant at Duquesne, elevating Walsh to the top position.

Walsh and the Gents are coming off a solid 2011-12 season, and they have high hopes for this year. Centenary has certainly shown it can play so far — the Gents controlled Shenandoah University throughout much of an 80-69 win in the BB&T title game to improve to 2-0.

They went 11-11 last year as a member of the American Southwest Conference (they were not eligible for conference championships because they still had some scholarship players on the team).

They are now in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, where they will be eligible for conference championships, though they can’t compete in the NCAA postseason until 2014-15 as part of the transitional process.

It’s been an interesting ride, but Walsh has done everything he can to put Centenary in a competitive place two years after it went 1-29 in its final Division I season.

“Last year we had a chance to finish with a winning record, and we were disappointed at the end of the year,” Walsh said. “But it was the best record we’ve had in eight years as a college.

“It’s created a buzz, and created some interest. We went 9-2 at home. Exterior expectations are raising for our program, probably a little slower than our internal expectations. But I think it’s a realistic possibility to compete for a conference title this year based on what we’ve seen on film from the teams we’re playing.”

Walsh has worked hard to get to this point, having worked on the coaching staffs of six different colleges before arriving at Centenary, which is located in Shreveport. Walsh started as a student manager at High Point University in North Carolina.

But Walsh said the key his first season as head coach at Centenary was not putting too much responsibility on his players. The Gents played 2010-11 with just four scholarship players (a fifth left nine games into the season) as several players elected to transfer before the season began.

Centenary opened up with 19th-ranked Memphis and lost 104-40, and the team proceeded to lose its first 28 games, putting itself in danger of breaking the all-time NCAA Division I losing streak of 34 games. Along the way Centenary also played at Marquette, LSU and Tulane.

“Needless to say, it was a challenge,” Walsh said. “You walk into [opposing arenas], your freshmen are taking pictures, it’s just a ‘everybody’s excited to be there’ type of situation. Guys are kind of ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ going into some of those games.

“You’ve got to try and stay positive through all that, and that was the biggest challenge for me. We took it easy that year. Just trying to get the guys better every day was the main approach that we took. Off the court, we went to some NBA games, went to a lot of movies on the road, and just spent a lot of time together.”

Centenary did win its second-to-last game at home against Western Illinois (73-60), a team it lost to 57-51 earlier in the season, to stop the streak at 33 and avoid the record.

“It was great to see our guys do that late,” Walsh said. “I know the guys were happy to avoid that record, but there’s no words to describe how challenging that season was for everybody. It was tough.”

Halfway through the season Walsh even had to endure ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski calling him up to ask him if Centenary could beat the Connecticut women’s basketball team, which was then at the tail end of its record 90-game winning streak. Walsh said then he didn’t know if his team could.

Walsh rolled his eyes when asked about that story Friday night, saying he just made a decision to go along and respond to whatever Wojciechowski was asking, even though his players were a little annoyed that the question was even asked.

But those days are long over, and now he’s excited about playing in tournaments like the BB&T, because it will hopefully prepare his team for the crucial games the Gents will play in at the end of season.

And as evidenced by the crowds who were coming out to see him these past two days — Walsh said there were about 40 family and friends in the stands Friday night — he’s particularly glad the setting is Winchester.

Walsh knows SU assistant Allen Corbin through a mutual friend, so that helped get Centenary invited to the Hornets’ tournament.

Walsh’s parents Nancy and Phil were among those issuing hugs Thursday, and others who have come out to see Walsh were his grandfather, both of his aunts and uncles, his godparents, teachers, high school classmates and teammates, and some people from his church.

“This is the first time my grandfather has seen me as a head coach live, so that means a lot,” Walsh said after Thursday night’s win. “I lost my grandmother this summer. It’s always disappointing to lose somebody and the chance for her to see me coach here would have been fun, but it means a lot that my grandfather got to come.

“This is the first time a lot of these people have seen me head coach. It’s been a long time since any of them have seen me do anything job-related since I left and went to college.”

They got to see his team perform well, and Blount said Walsh’s ways have definitely played a big role in that.

“I’ve been with him since he was a assistant coach, and just to see him transition from assistant to head coach, I think he’s done a tremendous job,” said Blount, who redshirted his first year at Centenary. “The guys he’s brought in, the way he’s worked with us to get us better and build us into the program he wants us to have, I’m extremely happy for him.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1