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Challenge accepted: Centennial girls coach thrives leading boys, too

Updated February 18, 2023 - 3:38 pm

After deliberating for several days last spring, Karen Weitz decided she would coach Centennial’s boys basketball team this season.

But she had to ask the girls basketball team first.

So she summoned her players to the foyer inside Hotel Alba Tampa after an emotional 63-30 loss to Sidwell Friends at the inaugural State Champions Invitational in Tampa, Florida.

“You guys have always been my priority. Your parents have made a lot of concessions for you guys to be here,” she said, scanning their faces to gauge their reactions.

“We’re really solid with you guys, but I need to feel like you guys are on the same page or else I won’t do it.”

Nary an objection.

Strictly celebration.

With their approval in hand, Weitz became Centennial’s basketball coach — discarding the gender-related qualifiers that previously accompanied the positions. This year she has maintained the sustained excellence she’s built in 23 years with the girls while rebuilding the Bulldogs’ fledgling boys program.

The girls are again among the nation’s elite, sporting a 22-1 record as they seek their eighth consecutive state championship this week.

The boys lost Tuesday in the Class 5A Southern League quarterfinals to state tournament qualifier Durango, finishing 16-8, 5-5 in league play, improving upon last season’s 10-14 mark — and installing critical elements of the culture that buoys their counterparts.

With that in mind, Weitz, 54 and retired from teaching, is committed to coaching both programs again next season.

“I wish I would have had her all four years to build that program up,” Bulldogs senior guard Elijah Burney said. “Obviously, seeing the girls program and how successful they’ve been, it’s great to finally be in that culture and that environment.”

Constructing a culture

That environment is responsible for more than 700 wins, 13 state championships and dozens of Division I scholarships for the girls who represent the Bulldogs, whose boys have not captured a single state championship or qualified for the state tournament since 2013.

A combined 18-33 mark the previous two seasons reflected a lack of structure, something Weitz disallows and detests having not missed a practice in more than 30 years of coaching.

“I thought we were better than our record, but we weren’t very disciplined,” senior wing Toby Roberts acknowledged. “It was kind of more freedom, but it didn’t work out. … We didn’t even make the playoffs.”

That would change under Weitz, who was urged last spring to coach the boys by longtime Bulldogs baseball coach Charlie Cerrone. She’d previously pondered the possibility, though only, she thought, when she concluded coaching the girls.

Retirement at the end of the 2021-22 academic year would create a void in her schedule and thus the time to run two programs at once.

“She kind of got to that point in her career where I think she needed a challenge,” assistant girls coach Katie Lutman said.

Weitz was formally announced as Centennial’s boys basketball coach May 4, triggering support from the girls and excitement among the boys, who were well aware of her winning ways.

“Everyone that played last year met up. And we were like, ‘We’re going to be good this year. Now we have a real program. We’re going to be established,’” Roberts said.

Because the boys play for various club programs across the Las Vegas Valley during the offseason, Weitz could maintain oversight of her girls program, the Vegas Bulldogs, while preparing for the 2022-23 seasons. She began working with the boys during an allotted intramural period in June, establishing the standards she’s long maintained for the girls while constructing a staff that includes some of her former players.

‘Shellshocked’

Roberts said he was sick and missed the first week of summer practices, earning an earful upon his return from Weitz, who also disallows excuses and prioritizes punctuality more than passing, cutting and shooting.

“Everyone there was shellshocked,” said Roberts, who wouldn’t miss another practice all season. “We did defense for a straight hour. We didn’t scrimmage. We didn’t touch a ball. We were all thinking, ‘Is this how it’s going to be all year?’”

But the boys would adapt, even quicker than Weitz expected them to — save for the six who were dismissed throughout the course of the season for reasons that included inconsistent effort, bad body language and academic issues.

She finished the season with 10, still more than the seven girls she finished the 1999-2000 season at Centennial with after beginning that year with 14.

“I knew I had to find that core,” Weitz said, players who would embrace her standards that have proven successful.

As the season evolved, the boys did, too, adjusting to fast-paced practices composed mostly of offensive and defensive fundamentals, shell drills and intensive cardio — often as a consequence for unforced, careless errors in games like technical fouls.

They committed far too many last season, drawing the ire of school administrators who imposed playing-time penalties.

“I’m sure they don’t like it,” Weitz said during a January practice composed entirely of sprints. “But they know when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

And they don’t complain, either.

Sporting Nike sweatsuits and a variety of Michael Jordan’s signature sneakers, Weitz can effortlessly oscillate between instructor, disciplinarian and mentor. She builds trust by communicating clearly and directly, maintaining her word at every turn. She subtly encourages teamwork in even the most casual of coaching conversations, gradually stripping away some of the individuality the girls already sacrifice for the betterment of their team.

The boys lost to Durango by 40 on Jan. 18 and 11 on Tuesday, thereby proving by season’s end they could compete with the state’s elite when they trust one another.

“It’s not just about basketball. It’s your character,” said former Bulldogs standout and boys assistant Breanna Workman, who graduated from Centennial in 2013, played at Arizona and coached previously at UC Santa Barbara and Northern Colorado.

“You don’t have to win and all that early on. You have to find a core that’s going to uphold the character,” she added. “So when people come in after them, eventually you have that understanding … that the program is there. You have to meet the program where it is.”

Maintaining a culture

That is indeed the understanding of the girls who elect to play basketball at Centennial. Who draw on two-plus decades of tradition they commit to upholding the minute the first day of their freshman year begins.

They hardly notice that Weitz is coaching the boys because her commitment to them hasn’t wavered one iota. Her confidence in their commitment to each other is why she’s coaching the boys to begin with.

“She pushes us. She pushes them. We’re all working hard,” senior Texas Christian commit Charlece Ohiaeri said. “I said before she even took the job, if a coach were (to coach two programs at once) it would be her.”

Weitz also pushes herself, devoting between eight and 10 hours to basketball every day. Sometimes, that means coaching two consecutive 90-minute practices. Sometimes, that means coaching a practice in the afternoon and a game that evening. Sometimes, that means coaching two games consecutively.

Every day, every week this season, it meant one of those permutations in addition to her thorough preparation.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on in her life outside of basketball. When she steps out of her car, she’s in a basketball mindset,” Lutman said. “It’s something she was bred with and born with that’s just different. It’s what sets higher level athletes and champions apart.

“It’s why she’s been successful in everything she’s ever done.”

It’s also why she’ll coach next month in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Why she’s an inductee this year in the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame.

Why it doesn’t seem like she’ll stop coaching anytime soon.

“She’s hardworking. She’s perseverance. It just shows in her programs, how successful they’ve been and how successful the boys can be,” Roberts said. “It’s really just boosted my confidence playing with her. I’ve done stuff I didn’t know I can do. …

“Her record speaks for itself. (She’s) a winner.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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