Earlier this month, the extensive NCAA investigation surrounding gender equity concerns within the institution concluded and the findings were released. Having been on the case since March, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP shed light on the harsh reality that the NCAA could do substantially more to promote and assist gender equity at a national level. For University of Louisville head women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz, the task at hand will start showing results once the NCAA takes action.
“Its been shown through the Kaplan report from the NCAA that there is revenue to be made if you invest it,” Walz said. “It has to start at the top, and for us that’s the NCAA, on deciding what the priorities are. I’m not going to sit here and say that you’re going to get the same return in women’s sports as you do men’s, but I think that you have got to give a little more attention to it because there are a lot of positive things that come from it and can be beneficial to many.”
In Walz’ perspective, the issue is not only present on the national level, but in individual markets as well. “I think a lot of it will be based on what your public’s appetite is, depending on where you are,” he explained. “We are very fortunate and blessed here at Louisville. We get a lot of media attention; our local media has been great to me ever since I arrived here.”
Since 2007, the women’s basketball following in Louisville has steadily grown. With the sustained levels of success achieved by the Cardinal program, the fanbase has developed into one of the biggest in women’s basketball, consistently ranking near the top of attendance numbers per year.
“The product of what we have been able to put out on the floor and sell as a program is what’s been able to draw so much expected interest from our city,” Walz explained. “We had to do our part as a program and that is putting a good product out there. At the same time, we’ve been fortunate that not only do we play an exciting brand of basketball and success has followed, but we also have really good young women that represent our program.”
The representation goes far beyond the court, however. In fact, Walz argues that the program’s work in the community is pivotal. “Not only do we win basketball games, but we’re doing things right in the community,” he said. “That is just as important as winning games; you’ve got to have a group of student-athletes that the city and fanbase are willing to surround and rally around.”
Not only has the distinguished success been crucial in building a brand, but it has also aided in recruiting in certain ways. The program has risen to prominence as a national powerhouse in the last 11 years, reaching three Final Fours and helping a slew of players get to the pros in that span.
“The players we are recruiting are at an age where they’ve seen Louisville women’s basketball in the top ten throughout the years that they start to watch it,” Walz said. “It has not necessarily made recruiting easier, because you’re just recruiting against different programs.”
To keep the program at such a high level, the formula is easy: consistently bring in successful recruiting classes. “We’ve been able to keep this program at a top-ten level and that takes a lot of work from my staff in terms of recruiting and player development,” Walz said. “That’s what allows us to have had continued success. You can’t get comfortable where you are, because that’s when you get passed. We’ve continued to challenge ourselves in recruiting, trying to find recruits that are not only good basketball players, but good people that fit our program, and we’ve been fortunate with that.”
The increasing amount of exposure has been helpful, and one aspect of that is the amount of former Cardinals playing professionally. Although recruits at this age may not remember Angel McCoughtry’s career in the Derby City, it is hard to look past her successes as a professional.
“Because of Angel McCoughtry’s success on a professional level and being a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist with USA basketball, she’s still well known. It’s amazing how much better that she is continuing to have gotten,” Walz added.
Since McCoughtry’s departure after the 2008-09 season, Louisville has witnessed a handful of stars rise through the program. Some of those standouts are playing in the WNBA currently, but Walz is quick to remind fans that playing overseas is nothing to look down on.
“It’s important to continue to have stars like Myisha Hines-Allen, Dana (Evans), Jaz (Jones), Kylee (Shook), and Asia (Durr),” Walz said. “We’ve got a good core that are playing in the WNBA, so it shows that we do have a program that produces pros, and offers a good education as well. Everyone gets hung up on the WNBA, but you’ve got Sam Fuehring, Monique Reid, Arica Carter; a list of them that are playing professionally in Europe and are doing very well for themselves.”
— Louisville WBB (@UofLWBB) July 2, 2021
Another aspect of exposure that is becoming increasingly critical with each passing year is social media; platforms like Twitter, Instagram, etc are great tools that allow a program to promote its brand, and the Louisville coaching staff is committed to using them to the fullest.
“Social media is very important and there’s no question about it,” Walz admitted. “If you’re not engaged in it, you’re kind of getting left behind. 15 to 20 years ago, we were writing letters and sending out information through the postal service. Now, you’re putting up graphics on social media, because that’s what the recruits are all on. Everyone is putting graphic designs out, but what are you doing to catch someone’s eye? We’re fortunate to have LaMont Russell, who does our video coordinating and graphic design; he does a great job.”
Everybody get up it's time to slam now.
We got a real jam goin' down
Welcome to the Ville! pic.twitter.com/WYc6hbFFhd
— LaMont Russell (@LaMonster34) July 16, 2021
There are many factors that assist in recruiting, but the main one is the success on the court. After losing to eventual national champion Stanford in the Elite Eight last season, the Cardinals are preparing for life without Dana Evans. For a program that utilizes a “next player up” mentality, it’s business as usual.
“It’s what we do each year,” Walz said. “You aren’t going to replace Dana Evans; there’s not another one of her, but it’s who is going to step their game up to that next level. There’s Hailey Van Lith, Kianna Smith, and Olivia Cochran. We didn’t replace Shoni Schimmel, or Angel McCoughtry. It’s just who is going to be that next one that takes that responsibility and I think we have a few of them that have showed me that they have that ability. I think that’s what make our program as special as it is in that you’re never really dropping off, it’s just the next one steps up.”
The Cardinals return the majority of their contributors from a season ago and look to yet again make a deep run in the postseason. Despite not being able to put in a ton of group instruction over the summer, Walz is pleased with the extra work his players have put in.
“I’ve been really pleased with what they’ve both done (Van Lith and Cochran), and with our team as a whole,” he said. “They’ve had a very good offseason and took advantage of the summer months to work on their individual games. We’re allowed a few hours each week in the summer to work with them, but they’ve put that extra time in. You’re only going to get so much better with four to six hours a week over an eight-week span, so it’s what you’re willing to do in your free time. I’ve been really impressed with the entire team’s dedication.”
Along with the returnees, Louisville is bringing in a handful of newcomers comprised of transfers and high school recruits. The two incoming transfers are Chelsie Hall and Emily Engstler. Hall was a 1,000 point scorer at Vanderbilt and brings experience to the point guard position.
“Chelsie is a player from the SEC that has played the point guard spot and she’s a leader with a very high basketball IQ,” Walz explained. “She’s someone that can deliver the ball to her teammates, but at the same time, is able to knock down shots. We recruited her out of high school and really liked her so when she went into the transfer portal, she was someone that really caught our eye quick.”
Engstler is no stranger to the Cardinals, having played the last three seasons at Syracuse. “We’ve played against Emily for three years so we’re very familiar with how talented she is,” Walz said. “She rebounds the ball, shoots the three, and plays inside-out. That was a no-brainer when that opportunity came about for us to have the chance to recruit her. When she decided to come here, it was great news for our program because it provides some depth and some instant talent to a lineup that needed a little bit more size.”
2021 recruits Payton Verhulst and Sydni Schetnan round out the incoming group, along with Alexia Mobley, a 2022 recruit that has reclassified and will redshirt this season. Ranked as a top-10 prospect, Verhulst recently won gold with the USA U19 in the FIBA U19 World Cup. Even with a crowded backcourt, the McDonald’s All-American will compete for playing time immediately.
“She’s a big guard that can shoot the ball and is a very good passer,” Walz said. “She’s not necessarily great at one thing, but she’s very good at a lot of things and that’s what impresses me about her; she figures out a way to win. if she needs to rebound, she rebounds; if she needs to score, she’ll score. She’s not a one-dimensional player and she’s willing to rebound, defend, dive on the floor after a loose ball, etc. That’s really what separates her and makes her stand out.”
— David Verhulst (@DaDverhulst) August 15, 2021
On the other hand, Schetnan may not play significant minutes immediately, but projects as a solid contributor down the road. At 6-foot-5, she will be a dual-sport athlete, playing both basketball and volleyball.
“She’ll start out with basketball her freshman year and focus on one (sport) at the beginning. Going into her sophomore year, she’ll be playing both. She’s had a good summer and has gotten adjusted to things. Hopefully, it will be a little bit more of a traditional school year compared to what we went through last year.”
The predicted developments of the individual players and the arrival incoming newcomers, coupled with the players’ selflessness and work ethic will have the Cardinals chasing a national championship once again.