Unexpected coach Terrell Walsh leads Senn’s surprise season

Senn boys' basketball coach Terrell Walsh and assistant Marcus Riley
Senn boys' basketball coach Terrell Walsh (left) and assistant Marcus Riley lead practice on Feb. 28. (Mark Singer/MEDILL)

By Mark Singer

Robert Spurlin didn’t have an answer to a simple question. In early October, with less than two months to go until the start of a new basketball season, prospective players at Senn High asked their athletic director who was going to coach them.

“All I could do was shake my head and tell them, ‘I’ll let you know soon,’” said Spurlin, now in his second year heading Senn’s athletics.

Spurlin’s first pick, an incoming teacher, fell through in August after the candidate failed the school’s background check. A second applicant, Ronnie Charrier, looked promising, but he would be in Australia for the first two weeks of the season to get married. Spurlin needed to look elsewhere.

He didn’t have to search too far though, as former Senn coach Terrell Walsh was willing to take over the team, despite a hectic schedule. Walsh’s official title now is “Technical Coordinator II.” Unofficially, he’s the go-to guy for teachers and administrators looking for someone to fill an opening quickly.

“He was my last choice only because of how busy he already is,” Spurlin said. “[Principal Mary] Beck pushed for him and thankfully he was happy to do it.”

Spurlin’s “last choice” turned out to be the right choice for Senn, which has reached the regional semifinals for the first time in nine years, when it won the regional. Senn is 12-6 after dropping its last two games.

Walsh has coached various high school sports for 16 years, including the boys’ basketball team at Senn in 2011 after the team got off to a 0-5 start. The Bulldogs lost the next seven games to finish 0-12.

His return to Senn has yielded much better results this season. Walsh is quick to point out errors in drills. He often looks exasperated during games, wearing a walkie-talkie on his hip in case school security needs to reach him.

But Walsh also keeps things light, with practices often ending in laughter.

“It’s all about the kids, man,” Walsh said. “It’s a long season, but it’s been so much fun.”

Junior center Armon Price credits Walsh’s for turning the team around.

“It’s definitely, like, a new program [under Walsh],” he said. “Discipline is a lot more serious. Like as far as everything he’s done in the short amount of time, we have changed a lot. I feel like this is a great team.”

Following four middling seasons under previous coach Sebastian Szewczyk, the entire boys’ basketball coaching staff was replaced in the fall. Charrier and Marcus Riley assist Walsh in addition to coaching the freshman and sophomore teams, respectively.

“I definitely like Walsh and the staff,” Senn starting point guard Noah Chapman said. “We weren’t on the same page last year.”

Charrier reached out to Walsh before the start of the season for a paid internship as an assistant to help complete his master’s degree in school counseling at DePaul University. Although the Seattle native is just 31, Charrier has nearly a decade of coaching experience.

His job is to get his players prepared for when they join the varsity ranks in two or three years. However, in the program’s second practice of the season with all three teams participating, the new assistant noticed all the freshmen and sophomores led off the line for drills, while the veteran upperclassmen hung back.

Charrier chuckled to himself, while Walsh shook his head. How could his varsity players do this in the first week of practice? Walsh couldn’t answer the question then, but eventually got the results he needed.

Three months later, on the eve of Senn’s regional semifinal game against Lake View Wednesday evening, Walsh and Riley flanked the players on each side of the court as the team squeezed in one final scrimmage before an unexpected showdown in the playoffs. The two coaches picked apart every lazy pass, blown defensive assignment and missed layup.

The only question now is how far can Senn go in the playoffs. The team that couldn’t find a coach weeks before the season could be playing well into March.

“For what you guys accomplished this season, you should all feel blessed,” Walsh told his players at practice Tuesday. “We weren’t supposed to be here. Let’s just have fun and keep it going.”

Photo at top: Senn boys’ basketball coach Terrell Walsh (left) and assistant Marcus Riley lead practice on Feb. 28. (Mark Singer/MEDILL)