At the annual Lady Raiders banquet Thursday, Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk announced that next season will be his last year with Three Rivers. Next year will be Walk’s 12th year with the program.
“This was all set in motion three years ago,” Walk said. “I’d go three more years, go part-time, and next year is it.”
Walk has had a successful career in 31 years of coaching at Twin Rivers and Three Rivers. He’s amassed 553 wins in his career. He’s a five-time Ozark Foothills Conference Coach of the Year and this year he won Region XVI Coach of the Year, Missouri Community College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year and District K Coach of the Year.
This season, he made his first trip to the NJCAA Tournament as the coach of Three Rivers and the third in the program’s history, leading the team to a 27-4 record, which included a run of 20 straight wins, finishing ranked No. 22 in the final NJCAA Division I poll.
At times when he was speaking during the banquet, you could hear the emotion in Walk’s voice as he reflected back on what was a special season for the program.
“You wait 31 years, you’re just glad to be around such a great group of kids,” Walk said. “How they act on the floor, off the floor, it’s like how I mentioned in the program, they knocked a pretty good team out of that top spot.”
Once next season ends, current co-head coach Alex Wiggs will take over as the new head coach. This season was Wiggs’s third with the program.
“Really didn’t have a time frame whenever I took the job,” Wiggs said. “Whenever I took the job, he did tell me that he didn’t know how long he’d be doing it. Then as we got going, as we got talking more, with his wife retiring last year, he decided that he wanted to do it for three more years.
“Whenever he approached me, I mean, I’m honestly ecstatic. It’s one of my goals, especially to be at a program like Three Rivers an hour and a half from home.”
Prior to his time at Three Rivers, Wiggs had spent three years as an assistant coach at Moberly Area and three years as an assistant coach at Lincoln University.
Along with that experience, he said he’d learned a lot from Walk the past three years with the Lady Raiders.
“I think the biggest thing I learned is every young coach has that fire, you know, has that energy where they want to be the best,” Wiggs said. “He showed that there’s different ways to go about it to still be successful. He’s been doing it for 31 years, and I just hope that I can be half the coach in 30 years as far as how he handles everything from the kids on a daily basis to issues. He’s taught me a lot.”
The players knew, as Walk told them he’d be leaving when the current freshman class graduates.
“I feel like we’re going to work hard for him in his last year,” redshirt freshman Deanay Watson said. We all want a championship ring, so that’s what we’re going to try our best to do just to give him a good year for his last year. I think with coach Wiggs’s takeover, I think the program will be pretty nice, especially with the freshmen that are coming in next year.”
When Walk started to get emotional during the banquet, the players had to try to hold back their own emotions, too.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,’ you know, I’m not going to be able to (keep it together),” sophomore Hailee Erickson said.
Added Watson, “I was like, turn away, turn away, Deanay. It’s not a time for sad moments. It’s a happy moment. I can’t do all that.”
Before Walk’s announcement, the team had spent time reflecting on what was one of the three most successful seasons in program history and gave out awards to players who led the team in certain categories throughout the season. J’Kayla Fowler and Katelyn South made Second Team All-Region, Erickson and Jordan Little made the First Team, Hannah Thurmon and South made Second Team All-Conference, Little, Watson and Erickson made First Team.
Watson was named the Region XVI Freshman of the Year, and her list of accomplishments for the season was a long one. She earned the two-point field goal percentage award at 57.4 percent on the year, and in the first game of the season she broke the Three Rivers record for made shots in a game with 14 against Arkansas State Mid-South. She also pulled down the fifth-most offensive rebounds in a season in Three Rivers history with 254. She accomplished all of that after redshirting last year due to injury.
“It was a lot of work,” Watson said. “I didn’t give up. It means a lot to me. It does because it shows you can redshirt and come back from anything, so it was good. I’m thankful for everything.”
Little led the team in 3-point percentage at a 38-percent clip on 57 makes for the year. With 159 made 3’s in her career, Erickson finished third in the Three Rivers record books. The night was a chance to reflect back on all of those things, and the sophomores were able to enjoy one last night with their coaches and teammates.
“It was fun just to recap all the memories that we had made. For me, this is going to be a season that I know I’ll never forget,” Erickson said. “It was fun, but now it’s setting in a little.”
There’s one thing the sophomores will remember from this last season with the team.
“Everything,” Erickson said.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic