Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Karen Weitz has accomplished a lot as the girls' basketball coach at Centennial. She has helmed the team since school opened in 1999 (save for one season spent at Pacific), and she has turned the Bulldogs into one of the state's most dominant athletic programs, winning nine state championships during her tenure. But in her first 16 years on the job, not a single one of her players committed to UNLV.
Centennial won a lot of games and produced a ton of Division I players, but for some reason UNLV could never reel one in. Weitz had trouble explaining it. She is a UNLV alum and maintains a strong connection to the hometown team, but the local option never seemed to click with any of her players.
That’s changed quickly over the last four months, as three Centennial products have committed to the Lady Rebels.
In April, former Centennial star Bailey Thomas announced that she was transferring to UNLV after one year at West Virginia. Two weeks ago, 2018 guard Justice Ethridge committed to the Lady Rebels, an 2019 teammate Melanie Isbell joined a week later.
The bounty of Centennial recruits should be a coup for UNLV. Ethridge and Isbell are two of the best prospects in the state, and Thomas was a prized recruit who should make an impact when she becomes eligible in 2018-19.
“This is crazy,” Weitz said with a laugh. “These are the first Centennial kids going to UNLV, and that’s hard for me to believe. I’m an alum, and I’ve been saying we’ve got to have some Centennial kids going there at some point. I’ll tell you this, I think UNLV got a great pickup with these girls.”
Thomas, a 5-foot-9 guard, led Centennial to a state championship in 2015-16 by averaging 9.0 points and 4.0 steals per game.
Ethridge averaged 13 points last season as a junior while leading the Bulldogs to a third straight state title. She is rated as a three-star prospect by HoopGurlz.com and is the No. 16 guard in the nation.
Isbell posted 8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore and is rated the No. 8 guard in the Class of 2019.
Apparently it only took one Centennial commitment to open the floodgates. After Thomas and Ethridge announced, Isbell said UNLV was such an easy decision that she didn’t hesitate to commit even though she has two more years of high school remaining.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Lady Rebel,” Isbell said. “I always watched UNLV growing up. I attended games. I love the UNLV coaches and what they stand for, the hard work and the energy. I love the environment they create for the player.”
Isbell said her Centennial connections made her feel at ease with her decision.
“I talked to Bailey after she transferred just to see how everything was, because she’s actually there. She gave positive feedback. She likes it and she’s happy. It was just more positivity that definitely made me want to go to UNLV. And sticking with the Bulldogs and my high school teammates is cool.”
Weitz said UNLV coach Kathy Olivier maintains a recruiting presence on the local scene, but that kids often dismiss the program in favor of an out-of-state college experience. Olivier can't discuss recruits until they sign a letter-of-intent.
“UNLV has gotten a bad rap over the years for not having enough local players on the team,” Weitz said. “But let’s be realistic, kids never want to stay home. Kids in general, I’ll ask them, ‘What about UNLV?’ And they say, ‘No coach, I’m not staying home.’ But with Bailey coming back, I know Justice spoke to her right off the bat. Justice and Mel both played with Bailey. Sometimes when you get a foot in the door, kids are more comfortable playing with someone they know. They played well together and got along great [at Centennial], and I think they can really do big things at UNLV.”
Isbell is hopeful that this run of Centennial commitments will open the door for other Las Vegas players to consider UNLV.
"I think if other players start to see that more talent is staying home and we are maybe building a dynasty at our hometown school, maybe more girls will say, 'Hey, I want to be a part of that.'"