Mike Walsh flew down to Jacksonville last Thursday for his end-of-year vacation to visit his son Mickey. When he arrived, Walsh attended the girls basketball practice for the youth team Mickey coaches.
Twenty four hours later, Walsh, the veteran boys coach at Trinity Catholic who retired after last season, had agreed to become the school’s girls basketball coach.
Big news alert.
“I’m only doing this because I feel the girls deserve the opportunity to achieve success and they are capable of doing it,” Walsh said yesterday, hours before he would practice with the team for the first time. “I’m hoping I’m the guy that can help them.”
Trumbull and Norwalk, with 6-0 records, have started to separate themselves from the rest of the field and remain the heavy favorites in the FCIAC, but the addition of Walsh on the sideline suddenly makes the 5-1 Crusaders a wild card. Not to mention a stronger contender for the Class S title. The upgrade may end up having the impact of a star transfer at midseason.
One FCIAC coach told me Trinity getting Walsh has the potential be a game-changer.
Walsh has never coached a female team before, not even when his two daughters played.
“I would watch them and try to coach from the stands like a typical parent,” Walsh said.
Walsh stepped down after 39 years as the Crusaders’ coach. He had been serving as the assistant to his replacement, Brian Kriftcher.
So how did the fourth-winningest coach in state history, with seven state and six FCIAC titles, end up as the girls basketball coach at his alma mater?
Mike Martino abruptly and unexpectedly stepped down as coach last week. His final game was Friday. At 7:30 that morning, Walsh was taking a relaxing walk at the start of a warm Florida day when he received a call from a school official. It started out seeking Walsh’s counsel. By the time the conversation was over, Walsh had agreed to fill the void on an interim basis through the end of the season.
“I’ve been around Trinity Catholic for over 50 years, as a student and a coach,” Walsh said. “I would do anything to help the school.”
Walsh has caught glimpses of the girls practices. He knows he has talent to work with. Iyanna Lops and Caitlyn Scott form a strong 1-2 punch. Walsh said Lops expressed excitement when she spoke to him on the phone.
Walsh has always been tireless getting information on opponents. By yesterday he already had a much better read of the league than one would expect, as well as a scouting report for tonight’s game with Staples.
“My wife was upset I wasn’t spending more time with my grandchildren because I was spending time on the phone for girls basketball,” Walsh said.
Right now Walsh is figuring a way to play catchup, learning the detailed strengths and weaknesses of his personnel. Other coaches did this a month ago, during the two weeks of preseason. Should the Crusaders run? Are they a better half-court team? Which players are his best defenders?
In a short time, Walsh has put together a staff that only a few schools can match. Maryann O’Leary, a long-time assistant to former coach Tom Kriz, has returned. Ali Palma, an All-FCIAC player for the Crusaders five years ago, is another addition. Walsh’s daughter Ali, who has coaching experience, will also help out.
Kriftcher, who runs the Stamford Peace youth program, is familiar with some of Walsh’s players. He already lent a hand and ran the girls practice on Sunday before Walsh returned.
“I was really enjoying being a coach for Brian,” Walsh said. “I am going to give my best to the girls and then I look forward to being his assistant again next year.”
The Crusaders are currently tied with Staples and Ridgefield at 3-1, a game being Trumbull and Norwalk, in the league standings. Tonight’s game with the Wreckers and next Thursday at home against the Bears, will be good indicators.
The Eagles and Bears remain the league favorites. But the Crusaders’ unexpected new addition elevates them to wildcard status in the championship hunt.