Three years ago when Jeff Walk signed Deanay Watson to Three Rivers College, he told her they were both going to leave Three Rivers as national champions.
Watson paused, so Walk said it again.
It was a bold statement at the time. Watson, who redshirted her freshman season, was the only player committed for that swan song season. As the Raiders prep for their season opener, winning a championship is more hope than dream.
When Watson signed, Walk had already decided and told the powers that be that he was going to retire following the 2019-20 season, culminating 32 years of coaching — 21 years at Twin Rivers High School and the past 11 at Three Rivers.
As Watson redshirted, the Raiders won 20 games. Last season, they won 27 and reached the national tournament. Three Rivers was handed the No. 24 seed, the last seed in the tournament, and lost by four points in the first round to No. 9 Jones. As it turned out, Jones lost by 11 points in the next round to eventual runner-up and No. 8 seed New Mexico.
“I just want to get revenge. We went into the tournament as the last seed in the whole tournament, played one of the best teams and only lost to them by four. So hopefully that made a statement for us,” sophomore Katelyn South said. “Hopefully we’ll get a higher seed and an easier route to hopefully the championship.”
Three sophomores exited — Erickson, Kim Shaw and Casey Douglas.
Five freshmen returned — Watson, South, Jordan Little, Hannah Thurmon and An’Nyah Pettus. There were five of the top seven scorers on last year’s team. The only piece missing is J’Kayla Fowler, who averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20 minutes game off the bench, but has since left the program and moved away.
The five were among the team leaders in every stat category last year, if not the outright leaders. Watson averaged 13.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, Pettus and Thurmon were right behind her. Thurmon led with 2.3 blocks, more than triple anyone else.
They’re a big reason why Three Rivers is ranked 19th heading into this season. One spot ahead of Wabash Valley, which didn’t lose a game last year until the national quarterfinals and travels to the Libla Family Sports Complex on Nov. 9.
“We just want to prove everyone wrong that doubted us, and still doubt us to this day,” Watson said.
Walk has already told the Raiders that Wabash Valley is mad. It thinks it should be ahead of Three Rivers.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best game, every game,” Walk said. “We’re not going to go undefeated. The schedule is set up to be taxing, so I know that isn’t going to happen.”
Three Rivers hopes its freshman class will help it to climb the rankings. Thurmon, at 6-foot-2, was the team’s only true post defender last season. It was a weakness at the national tournament.
This year’s freshmen class adds three players who are as tall or taller than Thurmon, freeing her up to play more on the wing.
“Last year I felt like that was my job, was to protect the post. I knew I had to work harder because I was the main post,” said Thurmon, who averaged 9.2 points and 6.7 rebounds to go with her 2.3 blocks. “I knew this year coming in, I had girls that were going to be behind me to help.”
The seven-player class also adds strong guards, including three-time Missouri All-State selection Chaylea Mosby and Neelyville state champion Autumn Dodd.
“With five sophomores instead of three last year and all the incoming freshman, I feel like we’re stronger than we were last year and we can do better than last year,” Little said.
With the post flipping from weakness to strength, guards the are freed up to shoot more on the outside, run the fast break, making Three Rivers both bigger and faster than it was last season.
“I threw a lob pass for the first time ever this year just because I’ve never played with a post player,” said South, who averaged 11.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season.
Walk hired then assistant coach Alex Wiggs during the summer before the 2016-17 season.
After winning 15 games the season before Wiggs, Three Rivers has won 69 in three seasons since. Watson’s class was the first full recruiting class with Wiggs, who has since been named co-head coach and will take over the program after Walk retires.
“His tenacity, love of the game and how well he gets along with the kids (make him qualified). He’s willing to adapt and make changes when things aren’t going the right way,” said Walk, who is working with Wiggs on things like purchasing, transportation and scheduling to get him prepared for next year. “He knows how to setup practice and we’ve always worked well on that. It’s all the behind-the-scenes stuff that no one knows, it just gets done.”
Walk hasn’t had a winter free since 1986. When this season is said and done, he’s steadfast on keeping his winter’s free. He’ll plans to spend his time with his two grandsons, traveling, fishing, hunting, and basically doing what he wants, when he wants. His swimming pool business will keep him busy, as well.
“Thirty-two years of being tied, and enjoyed every single last second of it, and I’ll enjoy every single second of this year, but a lot of things got put on the back burner,” Walk said. “If I need a basketball fix, I know I can go talk to (nephew Nathan Walk) at Greenville, or (daughter Jordanna Walk) at Ste. Genevieve. But 32 years of being at everybody else’s whim and mercy, I’ve been a little fortunate. I hope the next six months will be good, too.”
Scott Borkgren - Daily American Republic