WINCHESTER — When Adam Walsh took over as Shenandoah University’s men’s basketball coach last year, one of his first orders of business was to establish the pillars upon which the struggling program would build its new culture. Year 2 under Walsh is underway, and though the Hornets aren’t exactly starting anew when it comes to their culture building, it’s pretty darn close.
Walsh’s first SU team was heavy with seniors, meaning that most of the progress that was made during the 2017-18 season to change the attitude and mindset of a program that hasn’t had a winning season in a decade moved on with the graduation of those upperclassmen. The Hornets open Walsh’s second season with just five returnees among the 16 players on the roster.
“We did things last year to kind of get through, get through that year knowing that we had that many older guys,” Walsh said last week when speaking of the steps SU needs to take in Year 2. “So culture’s still a primary, absolute goal of this season.”
Walsh’s arrival at SU marked the start of a complete overhaul for the Hornets, and because everything on and off the court changed for players who were used to doing things a certain way under a different head coach, last season was one of learning as the Hornets limped to an 8-18 finish. A lot of that learning, Walsh said, didn’t happen until after the season as players examined film and caught up on everything that happened in 2017-18.
This is the season that needs to serve as the true foundation for Walsh’s vision for Shenandoah men’s basketball. The Hornets are young — of the team’s 16 players, nine are freshmen, and there are no seniors — but that youth should work in Walsh’s favor as he tries to instill his culture. As he pointed out, it’s easier to establish good habits with 18 year olds with multiple years left in the program than it is to do so with 22 year olds who will move on at the end of the season.
“We’re so young that really, really getting into our language, our habits, our standards, our commitments, how we handle each day, those things have to become part of our program this season,” Walsh said. “Our guys last year saw a lot of it but only six guys came back from last year, and we’ve already lost one of those. We’re down to five returners that saw last year, so now it’s almost if they don’t teach, if they don’t lead, there’s a void there.”
Finding those player leaders to complement the work of the coaching staff is a key part of the culture-building process, and it’s a part that Walsh said is still a work in progress, one hampered by the small contingent of returning players.
“Leaders learn how to communicate and then they communicate,” he said. “They’ve gotta learn how to do it first.”
SU’s coaching staff isn’t necessarily looking at its oldest players to assume the leadership roles, though such responsibilities tend to fall naturally to such players, particularly those who have a season with Walsh to their credit. Walsh said leadership-building has been a teamwide exercise, though he did add that one veteran — junior point guard Jalyn Jarrett — is emerging and stands out above the rest in that regard.
“Jalyn Jarrett has flipped the switch in the last month that is saying to the rest of the team, ‘I’m here, you need to get in line and follow me.’ And that’s big for us,” Walsh said. “What we now need is for him to be that way 12 months of the year to really establish our culture. We need a leader that has that want-to to be a leader year-round and not just when the ball’s bouncing and the lights are on.”
Once SU finds a core of players willing and able to hold that level of responsibility, the program’s cultural values — and, hopefully, the on-court success that results from those values — will truly take hold.
“A coach-led team can only go so far,” Walsh said. “A peer-to-peer-led team, a player-led team, the sky’s the limit. I have to lay the groundwork, these guys still need to take it to a different level where when I’m not around, when our staff’s not around, they’re holding each other accountable.”
Chris Chaney, a junior forward and SU’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, said their level of leadership and accountability will measure much of the Hornets’ 2018-19 success.
Jarrett added that the Hornets need to “stay the course” and continue buying into Walsh’s teaching through the ups and downs that surely await a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007-08.
“It’s a long season, so you’re gonna face adversity,” Jarrett said. “As long as we can always keep each other together and know that we’ve always got each other’s back, we should always assume the sky’s the limit for us.”