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Karen Weitz, Centennial reach pinnacle with trip to nationals

Twenty seasons of attention to detail.

Of game-planning, organizing, scouting, practicing, teaching, yelling and demanding the best from herself and her players.

Twenty seasons of hard work.

Finally, Karen Weitz and her Centennial girls basketball team are reaping the ultimate reward.

Weitz, who began blazing a trail for Southern Nevada girls basketball more than two decades ago, will lead her Bulldogs into the GEICO Nationals beginning Friday in New York City. Centennial (31-1), ranked fourth nationally by USA Today, will meet second-ranked St. John’s (D.C.) in a semifinal at 10 a.m. Friday. The game will be televised by ESPNU.

Centennial is the first Nevada girls team to play in the national tournament.

“This is something new for us, something bigger than we’ve ever done,” said Weitz, who is 593-54 at Centennial. “It’s just amazing.”

And something few would have envisioned when Weitz began Centennial’s program in the 1999-2000 season after four years as Cheyenne’s coach.

Building a winner

Southern Nevada girls basketball was little more than an afterthought before Centennial won the 2002 Class 4A state title. It ended Northern Nevada’s 22-year stranglehold on the large-school crown.

Southern Nevada teams often struggled just to get to a state championship game during the drought. The 1997 Class 4A state semifinals were comprised of four Northern schools, and only one Southern team advanced to a 4A state title game from 1997 to 2001.

“It was 100 percent not a talent issue; it was simply coaching,” said Craig Campbell, who led Reno High to the state title in 2001 and now coaches at Clovis West (California). “Vegas has always had talent, always had athletes. The organization and demand of performance aspect was lacking. Nobody was doing a feeder program, and most of the better coaches were drawn to the boys game.”

Former Carlin and Elko coach Lynette Davis agreed.

“In the North, you had coaches that built good, solid programs,” said Davis, who won 563 games and eight state titles in her career. “Administrators in the South were not as keen on building girls programs. They pretty much hired anyone to coach. There wasn’t consistency. They’d hire a coach who didn’t last long.”

Weitz took advice from Campbell and started the year-round Las Vegas Bulldogs program to develop athletes into basketball players and brought consistency to the Centennial program.

“Karen was putting in time but didn’t have the model,” Campbell said. “You could see the transformation taking place, and Karen has taken it to a whole other level. I don’t see anyone catching her. They completely outwork everyone in the state.

“She has kids who come in and are probably junior college or Division III kids, and she works with them and develops them into Division I kids. The level of basketball and athlete has changed.”

The results have been undeniable.

Centennial defeated Douglas in double overtime in the 2002 championship game, finishing an undefeated season by winning Southern Nevada’s first large-school title since Eldorado took the Class 3A crown in 1980.

“It’s one of the most memorable days of my life,” said Darci Sandoval Seever, a member of the first Centennial championship team. “I know that sounds corny to a lot of people because it’s high school, but it really was.

“Karen is an amazing coach. She pushes you so hard, and she doesn’t quit. But she pushes you because she wants the best out of you. I was more scared of her than I was of my parents. You saw how hard she worked, and you didn’t want to disappoint her. She was the most influential person in my life along with my parents.”

The Bulldogs didn’t stop, winning four straight titles from 2002 to 2005.

Centennial, which won its fifth consecutive Class 4A title in March, has won 11 of the past 18 titles and been ranked in the top 10 nationally each of the past four seasons.

“Only (assistant coach Cassandra) Adams and I, who have been doing this for 25 years, know where Nevada basketball was when I started at Cheyenne,” Weitz said. “Now everybody just thinks this is where Nevada basketball has always been.”

Ripple effect

Centennial’s success pushed other schools to improve.

Bishop Gorman has won four state championships since 2006. Liberty has played in four of the past nine state title games, and programs such as Desert Oasis, Foothill and Spring Valley have worked to become part of Nevada’s elite, all benefiting from having players who compete year-round.

“Basketball is better in Las Vegas because of Karen and because of that Centennial program,” Davis said. “The people there have either had to raise their level or get left behind.”

Weitz has had 37 players commit to or play Division I college basketball, seven state Gatorade players of the year and a McDonald’s All-American in former North Carolina standout Italee Lucas.

“People always ask me why I want to keep doing this and just winning state championships,” Weitz said. “I do it for the kids to give them opportunities to go on and play college ball.”

Representing school and state

In the past five seasons, Centennial is 48-8 against out-of-state competition, including 14-6 in the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions.

Now the Bulldogs get a chance to prove themselves on a national stage, all because of the foundation built by Weitz.

“I’m excited to be part of the group to represent Centennial,” said senior Eboni Walker, who will play at Arizona State next season. “We finally get our chance.”

Davis and Campbell, who have coached against Weitz, said they will be rooting for Centennial this weekend.

“Karen and I have grown to know each other. We have great respect for each other,” Campbell said. “We hate to lose. Everyone loves to win, but there’s such a difference between losing tearing at your soul and loving winning.”

Said Davis: “I really have a lot of respect for Karen. I think this is huge for the state. It puts us on the map.”

And the Bulldogs are carrying the banner for the players who came before them, ones who are rooting for their team and their coach who pushed them to always work hard.

“I would be so happy, especially for coach,” Sandoval Seever said. “She deserves it so much.”

More preps: Follow at nevadapreps.com and @NevadaPreps on Twitter.

Contact reporter Bartt Davis at bdavis@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4587.

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