Tom Donnelly walked into the post-game locker room Wednesday night at Xavier University’s Cintas Center carrying a small cardboard box.
“In here,” the Walnut Hills athletic director told those in the room as he held it above his head, “is something never before seen in the history of Walnut Hills basketball: regional championship game tickets.”
The Eagles, playing in the school’s first regional tournament since 1987, fought off a second-half rally by Springboro to beat the Panthers 52-46 and advance to the program’s first-ever regional title game. Friday night they will face La Salle, a school that has won two Division I state titles, including one two seasons ago, and will be playing in its fourth regional final in the last five seasons.
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This is not the story of one basketball team, however. It is the story of how one basketball team has come to symbolize that high level athletics don’t have to come at the cost of high level academics at public institutions.
Waking a sleeping giant
When Jeff Brokamp took over as principal at Walnut Hills in 2007 he noticed something he didn’t like and he wanted to change.
The Cincinnati school has had a storied tradition of academic excellence since its founding in 1895. It’s not your normal public school. Students have to score in the 70th percentile in reading and math on a national test to be accepted into the school and, once there, expectations and workloads are heavy. It is annually ranked among the top 100 schools in the United States by Newsweek and US News & World Report; Walnut Hills was No. 90 nationally and No. 1 in Ohio in US News & World Reports’ 2012 rankings.
Yet there was a disconnection between the academic excellence and the athletic extracurricular.
“For some reason, Walnut Hills had been sleeping for a lot of years relative to how we transfer that excellence into athletics,” said Brokamp. “It’s something that I think snowballed to a point where people truly believed, and there was unquestionably a culture here that believed that in order to achieve at a high level academically that we couldn’t possibly pay attention to athletics and be successful there. That’s just ridiculous.
“We really couldn’t justify and can’t justify having excellence in certain areas and being abysmally poor in other areas. The school can’t tolerate that. It’s a disconnect and it causes conflict within the organization.”
The sea of gold that filled its half of the lower bowl at the Cintas Center Wednesday would indicate that disconnection has been fused.
A win Friday night against La Salle would send a Walnut Hills team to an OHSAA state tournament for the first time since the 1965 baseball team reached the Class AA state semifinals. That is, according to OHSAA records, the only other time Walnut Hills has qualified for a state competition in a team sport.
This basketball team, now 26-1 on the season, isn’t a fluke. It has been ranked No. 1 in Cincinnati all season and already owns a 67-48 win against La Salle in the regular season. It was ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press state poll and is ranked No. 18 nationally by MaxPreps.com and is just outside of the USA Today Super 25 rankings. The only blemish on the record is a seven-point defeat against national top-10 team Huntington (WV) Prep and its star player Andrew Wiggins, who is considered the top high school player in the country.
This senior class – there are 12 seniors listed among the 16 players on this year’s roster – came into Walnut Hills as seventh graders the same year as Brokamp took over as principal. There have been added pieces; 6-10 senior center Jordan Tyson is a transfer from Columbus, while 6-6 senior guard D.J. Wingfield left Walnut Hills prior to his freshman year only to return for this senior year, but the majority of this class have been together the past six years.
“We all knew each other coming in from AAU and knew that we had a nice group of talented guys coming in,” said senior guard Sterling Gilmore. “It means everything to us because we’ve had one goal since the beginning of the year, really since seventh grade, and that was to win a state championship. To realize we’re so close and all we have to do is win one more game (to get to the state tournament) means a lot to us.”
Gilmore knew what to expect before he enrolled at Walnut Hills. His mother and his aunts are alumnae of the school.
“They told me if I go there it’s going to be a challenge but it’s going to be rewarding once you go to college. I love it,” said Gilmore.
Wingfield has signed to play his college basketball at Ohio University. Isaiah Johnson, a 6-9 center, will be playing at Akron next season. Johnson had 16 points and 13 rebounds against Springboro and its 6-10 star center Maverick Morgan, who will be attending Illinois next season. The program had lost in the district semifinals three of the last four seasons prior to this year, including against Princeton last year when it held a second half lead.
This season has been different.
When Springboro rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second quarter to take its first lead of the game, 35-34, on a three-pointer by Jake Pfahl with 7:06 left in regulation, Walnut Hills responded with seven straight points to regain the lead. Guard Khari Burton hit a pair of jump shots, while guard Ricardo Hill converted a conventional three-point play off a steal, layup and free throw.
“We play more of a team game,” said Johnson. “We want it so much this year after coming up short. Just to be at this point in time, we don’t want to go home yet.”
Excellence across the board
Amanda Robinson interviewed for the job of head girls’ track and field coach three years ago. A former University of Cincinnati athlete, she was well aware of the academic reputation of Walnut Hills. She also knew that the program she was seeking to take over had enjoyed a lot of success over the previous 20 years under Karl Kauffman, well before Jeff Brokamp had set out on his mission. That included the program’s first regional team title in 2010.
“During my interview they said our goal is not only does Walnut Hills have an excellent academic history but we want to be excellent in everything and that includes athletics. At first that was a little bit of a shocker,” said Robinson. “It is evident that that is one of their goals. Obviously, they are student-athletes and their academics come first, but if you need something, whether it’s support, financial support or support of people at a game or you need more practice, anything you need they’ll give you.”
Robinson talked about Feb. 6, national letter-of-intent signing day across the country. It’s a big day for students and their parents. Distance runner Maryn Lowry, who will be attending the University of Iowa, and several football players were headed to a ceremony to celebrate their future endeavors. Nearby, the quiz team was getting ready for a competition.
“You had this large group of people who went to support the quiz team in the recital hall,” said Robinson. “They actually moved the quiz team’s match to a larger venue, which is cool. They just support everything. I’ve got girls involved in student council activities, class activities, prom committees, black culture club. It’s just a very involved school.”
It’s not as if Walnut Hills has never enjoyed any athletic success; no school in Ohio has had as many state singles tennis champions as the nine owned by Walnut Hills’ players. International Tennis Hall of Fame member Tony Trabert was the first player to win three consecutive state titles from 1946-48. The school’s athletic success has usually come in what are affectionately known as “country club” sports – golf, tennis, swimming – disciplines that are usually fostered to greater extent outside of schools with private coaches and clubs and where the team aspect isn’t first-and-foremost to winning.
“Developing our own student-athletes here has kind of been a challenge,” said Brokamp. “It’s like anything else, it’s a function of getting people who know what they’re talking about, who know what they’re doing, who are great role models and who the students want to follow.”
The football program had been 3-47 in five seasons before George Kontsis took over in 2008, including losing 36 consecutive games. That not-so-dubious streak ended in the first game under Kontsis. The Eagles qualified for the playoffs for the first time in history in 2011. Their stay was short, running into perennial power Colerain in the first round, but the accomplishment meant more than just what happened on the football field.
It’s the same for this season’s basketball team.
“When the football team and the basketball team succeed it means we’re a more balanced place,” said Brokamp. “We look at things and say that if we’re going to do these things we have to strive to be the best, to be excellent, at what we do. No matter what it is, whether it’s the chess club or the quiz team or the football team or the success of an AP course, we can’t settle for just being okay in that area. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be excellent in everything that we do but at least we’re moving in that direction or trending in that direction with every single program in the school. That’s how we see things.”