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NJIT’s Reilly Walsh rises above challenges to succeed on and off the court

Reilly Walsh discusses his NJIT career and the many struggles he overcame.

Growing up in Staten Island, New York, Reilly Walsh played several sports whether it was baseball, swimming, soccer and track and field. By the time Walsh reach St. Peter’s Boys High School, where his father (John Walsh) attended and was a member of the St. Peter’s 1983 team that won the New York City CHSAA AA City Championship, Reilly played baseball his freshman year. However, the following year Walsh turned his focus to basketball.

“I knew basketball is what I loved the most and would be successful at by putting in the time and work in,” said Reilly Walsh. “My Dad gave me my first basketball on my first birthday. I have been playing literally since I could walk. My Dad going there, and my Mom went to St. Peter’s Girls High School. I basically knew from the moment I was born that I would be going there.”

In his senior season at St. Peter’s High, Walsh put up impressive numbers, averaging 25 points per game and knocking 109 three-pointers. He eclipsed the 30-point mark nine times and 40-point mark twice. Playing for head coach Charlie Driscoll, Walsh totaled 751 points in his final season. The crowning achievement for Walsh was playing with his brother Dylan and winning a championship.

“Senior year will always hold a special place in my heart,” Walsh said. “Coach Driscoll, I have known my whole life, seeing him when I was growing up and having a winning championship team after championship team. I said I can’t wait to play for him one day. To play for him for three years was amazing. He really let me be myself helping me develop as a player and able to get to the Division I level.”

“I had so much fun playing alongside my best friends. My teammates were amazing, not even about scoring but winning and playing with my brother.”

“The goal of any team is to win a championship and to be able to do that is something I will never forget. My brother was the MVP of the championship game and played great. He was a junior at the time and point guard. Not everyone gets to play basketball with their brother. My Dad was on the bench for the championship game.”

He was named a Staten Island Advance All-Star and All-Staten Island pick twice by the New York Daily News while earning other prestigious honors and awards. Walsh found the most satisfaction in receiving the Jacques Award.

“I still have that in my room and is awarded to the best player on Staten Island. It’s an award I have known my whole life. A lot of great players have won. It is a testament to the work I put in over the years and the help people have given to me. My Dad going down to the gym with me at whatever time, late at night or early in the morning.”

Not only earning achievements on the court, but Walsh also succeeded in the classroom. He was named the salutatorian of the St. Peter’s High School graduating class. “My parents instilled in me that basketball and school are both important,” Walsh said. “The basketball will stop bouncing one day, so you better do good in school.”

Sharpening up his basketball skills while attending high school, Walsh played on the AAU team, the Staten Island Stingrays. “My Dad coached for a couple of years but there were also Jay Ziers,” said Walsh. “Those games were a lot of fun. I played in a couple of competitive tournaments against future NBA players Rawle Aikins and Ty Jerome. We were never one of the greatest teams, but we had the underdog mentality and had fun traveling.”

When it came to deciding which college he would attend, Walsh visited Columbia University. But it was NJIT that ended up being the first and only choice.

“NJIT recruited me before my senior year. I signed my letter and was my number one from the get-go. They were one of the first schools to recruit me, so I had my eyes set on them from day one. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity NJIT was giving me and being one of the first schools to contact and stick with me and coming to all my games, whether it was AAU on the East Coast or all my high school games throughout my junior and senior years.”

“Coach (Brian) Kennedy was the one that recruited me out of high school pretty hard. He traveled to watch me throughout the country. To see his commitment and belief in me, I knew that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. You want someone who believes in you and your game and truly cares about your family. From the start for him to give me the opportunity to play Division I, which obviously was the goal and a dream of mine since I was young. I’m really thankful for that.”

Visiting NJIT for the first time, Walsh said one of the benefits was the distance from his home in Staten Island only being a half-hour away. He also knew some of the people in the school. Fellow St. Peter’s Boys High School and NJIT basketball player in Ryan Wood said nothing but good things about the school.

“I really liked what I saw on campus, after receiving an offer to play there. They really believed in my game,” Walsh said. “They told me about all the bright plans for the future, the WEC (Wellness and Events Center). I knew the program was going to go to new levels and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Limited to six games in his freshman year for the Highlanders, Walsh still managed to enjoy the adrenaline of playing his first collegiate game for head coach Jim Engles and assistant coach Brian Kennedy. “My first year when he (Kennedy) became the head coach, it was cool because the guy who recruits you is now the head coach of the team. We had a lot of success under him,” Walsh said.

“My first game Division I game I checked into, I was hurt half the year. Against St. John’s, my family was there and having my name called that game felt pretty surreal and playing against St. John’s, a team I knew growing up was pretty cool.”

In his sophomore year, Walsh played in 21 games, but it was off the court where Walsh shined. He was named to the ASUN All-Academic Team while becoming the first NJIT player to earn that honor. Walsh also started all 30 games averaging 5.2 points per game his junior year. Walsh continued to display his academic talent with a unanimous selection on the ASUN All-Academic Team with a 4.0 GPA. Also, he was named to the ECAC Winter/Spring Academic Honor Roll, Division I-A Athletics Directors Association Scholar-Athlete Team, and National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Honors Court.

Starting his senior season in grand style, Walsh poured in a career-high 21 points against Colgate. However, basketball and academics would become secondary as Walsh dealt with his mother battling cancer. “Those games are special for many reasons. Aside from being a great game, it was important for me because my Mom was diagnosed with cancer,” Walsh said. “That whole spring and summer being there for her and watching her fight through cancer and chemo treatments. Seeing that really gave me an extra edge to go out there, play my best and hardest for her that year.”

“Coming out that first game and seeing her in the stands. She was not feeling her best, but she made the commitment to be there for me. To play like that for her was something I will never forget and to see her face after the game.”

On the verge of enjoying a breakout season, Walsh would face another serious issue sustaining a left ankle injury after the third game sidelining him for the rest of the season.

“When something like that happens before you get hurt and a season-ending injury, you feel you are conquering one challenge and obstacle and another one always seems to come your way. That’s life and now where I’m standing really grateful for all these challenges because I’m a better and stronger person today. My Mom is doing great and is in remission. It was tough. I’m not going to lie and going down after I was playing some of the best basketball. It definitely hurt a lot, but I knew I wasn’t going to cave and give in. It was a long road to recovery. But seeing my Mom fight, my fight was nothing compared to hers. I was not wavered by the journey I was facing and it was not easy. With the support of NJIT and my family, I was able to come back for this past year and it was awesome.”

Returning for his final season as a graduate student, Walsh rebounded by starting in 27 out of 30 games played, including a season-high 15 points at Lipscomb. Even with the Highlanders finishing up at 9-21, the last game of the season proved to be a memorable moment in pushing the top seed to the brink of elimination in the ASUN Tournament Quarterfinals before dropping a 55-49 decision. For Walsh personally, it was about returning from an injury and playing one final year with his teammates.

“This past season’s record obviously is not how we wanted to perform, but after being hurt my senior year to come back and play for Coach Kennedy and my teammates for another year was really something I was grateful for. I would not have wanted to spend this last year with any other program. To be able to come back to NJIT is a testament to the staff in believing in me.”

“We had a blend of older and younger guys. The first game of the year, I was filled with so much energy and emotion and to be able to get back out there and play the game I love. Being able to play through the season and after five years at NJIT was super emotional.”

Senior Day against Florida Gulf Coast on February 22nd at the Wellness and Events Center proved to be very emotional with Walsh and senior Shyquan Gibbs honored before tip-off. “The last game at NJIT was obviously emotional. I just talked to Shy and tried to play like it was any other game and prepared the same way, trying not to let our emotions get the best of us. My family and his coming together was emotional.”

“When the final buzzer went off, it doesn’t hit you right away. Honestly, it takes a couple of weeks. Now it does feel real not to put an NJIT uniform on again and play another game.”

“The first two years at Fleisher was great in its way. It was a home-court advantage when the gym got packed and the underdog mentality of NJIT that this is our gym no matter what it looks like. Going to the WEC was a major transition. Walking into that building is amazing and top-notch. Me and Shy moving over from the Fleisher Center into the WEC we had a great appreciation of what it was before and take advantage and be appreciative of what we have.”

“I remember the first game in the WEC against Wagner. All the energy we had was something we had never before with the lights and dream of. What college basketball is you get the chills playing in arenas and crowds like that. When you walk into a building like that, you know it’s legit and helps with the recruiting advantage. NJIT is not a huge school, so all the athletes know and support each other. Some schools are so big you really don’t know the other athletes. At a school like NJIT is a family and something I will always remember.”

Walsh on his teammates: “I really can’t say enough about Shyquan. That kid does it right on and off the court, the classroom and family. He is definitely a role model for student-athletes. Shy and I played a lot of games and minutes together and I obviously will be friends with him for the rest of my life. A testament to Shy for doing it the right way with training, strength and conditioning and keeping himself in top shape and taking care of his body. Obviously starting all those games in a row and playing thousands of minutes that takes its toll on your body but all the stuff he does behind the scenes to make sure he is ready to play every game and shows he cares.

“Souleymane (Diakite) is my roommate this year. A super-smart kid who speaks four languages. Mohamed Bendary was my roommate for four years. Zach(Cooks) is a great player, has a bright future ahead for him and super talented on the court. San Antonio (Brinson) the sky is the limit for that kid and a great basketball player. I could go through the list but everyone had a hand and a role on this team. We are all close and talk on a daily basis.”

“Coach Kennedy really builds great relationships with his players, which I think gives them the confidence to go out there and play their game. The coaching staff (Jeff Rafferty, Kim Waiters, Joe Gutowski, Danny Manuel) really take their time to get to you on and off the court and your family. Moving forward I will be able to connect with them and still be in touch with all of them. Having those relationships means a lot and that’s what really matters.”

“The coaching staff instilled in us we were going to go out and fight and play our hardest every night. Even if we didn’t come out on top, knowing we gave it our all, and we can live with that.”

Academically, Walsh kept up the high standards of excellence, named not only for the third consecutive year to the ASUN All-Academic Team but ASUN Scholar-Athlete of the Year. “It definitely means a lot to get that award,” said Walsh. “Over the years, I’m thankful for my parents instilling in me from a young age on the value of hard work and always give 110 percent of your effort in everything you do.”

“Time-wise traveling, classes, practices, strength and conditioning and going to the training room, and family time is not a lot of free time. Knowing how to really allocate your time and be efficient in your work on the court and with school work took time to work on. It’s definitely skills I was able to get pretty good at, and those are skills you need for the rest of your life.”

“To have that graduate degree will mean a lot for me and my family. I’m grateful for the opportunity NJIT gave me to play Division I basketball, which has been a dream my whole life and receiving an education at the same time. In the last five years, I did some great things and moving forward have big plans for the future. Thank you to everyone who supported me and lent a helping hand. I will never forget the time I spent there, and NJIT will always hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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