Mike Walsh as coach and Rashamel Jones as player are as closely linked as any combination in FCIAC boys basketball history.
It is rare in high school sports to pinpoint exactly when a program turned around as it is generally a gradual process, but not when it comes to Trinity Catholic boys basketball.
When Rashamel Jones walked onto the then-Trinity Catholic campus in the fall of 1991, the course of Trinity, FCIAC and CIAC basketball would never be the same and Mike Walsh would go on to become one of the winningest coaches in state history with 633 victories.
It is fitting that next fall Jones will join Walsh as one of the few player/coach combinations in the Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame.
“This is big, this is really big,” Rashamel Jones said. “We built a legacy together and to go in with him is an honor. He is like family. I still speak to coach to this day, and he is a big part of my life and I know I am a big part of his. It is a beautiful thing, especially when you have a relationship with these guys.”
Known as Stamford Catholic until the year Jones arrived, the team was 6-14 during the 1990-91 season, improving to 16-4 in Jones’ freshman season.
His sophomore year, Jones was joined by Earl Johnson and Trinity won its first FCIAC title in a stunning upset over previously unbeaten Fairfield High School, aided by a big-time performance in the final by Bobby Spillane as Fairfield focused its defense on Jones.
“My man Bobby Spillane changed my life and if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have won that game,” Jones said. “That win was excitement for the whole school. I can say that was our coming out party. After we won that game, the state took us seriously. There was no more, ‘well Stamford or Trinity Catholic is OK,’ now they looked at us like a top-10 team in the state. It was a big win and it set up the program infinitely.”
Indeed, it did, by his senior season, Jones and the Crusaders were playing in the Class M state final, though they would come up short of the title.
After Jones and Johnson, the Port Chester CYO pipeline to Trinity Catholic was open and players flowed through it for the next 20 years.
Beginning with that 1993 FCIAC championship team, Walsh and Trinity went to 12 FCIAC finals, winning six, played in 13 state finals, winning 7.
Jones, of course, went on to play on UConn’s first National Championship team, beating undefeated Duke in the 1999 NCAA final in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history.
For Jones, it was like reliving Trinity’s ’93 title.
“I remember it to this day,” Jones said. “We were big-time underdogs going into that game. Both of my championship games, we were underdogs. To Fairfield in high school and to Duke in college. They were very similar. Duke and Fairfield were both undefeated and nobody thought they would be beat.”
Jones said having never won a state championship, something Johnson, who won one at Trinity never allows him to forget, helped motivate him ahead of the Duke championship game.
“What I thought about while we were making the run at UConn was not about winning the FCIAC championship, but that we never won a state championship in high school,” Jones said. “I knew I couldn’t end my college career without winning the National Championship. We got bumped out of the tournament my junior year and I remember saying before that Duke game to the guys, ‘we have to win this, this is it, right here.’ To get that game was another dream come true.”
To be fair, Johnson said he is only kidding with Jones.
“Rash should have won two state titles if we are being fair. I wanted to win it with him, but his junior year he got the flu before the state semis and then we lost his senior year,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot from Rash just by watching him. I also saw that coach would give him freedom to create offense and knew if I played like Rash I would have the same opportunities. Coach Walsh let both of us be ourselves. Rash and I were the start of a long run of great teams Coach had.”
Like many of the players who would come after him at Trinity, Jones had a successful college career after high school.
Many former Trinity players like Jones, creditWalsh with steering them in the right direction at a critical moment in their lives.
Walsh and Jones have remained friends, even 25 years after the championship, still texting, talking and seeing each other in person whenever schedules allow for it.
Walsh does that with many former players, but there will always be something special about his relationship with Jones.