I￼￼￼￼t was maybe 15 minutes into her campus visit and Sara Walsh, ’99, was already looking for the famed lazy river. A former standout for the women’s soccer team, Walsh attended the University of North Florida before the campus ever had a lazy river at a residence hall. Or a beautiful, glass-encased Student Union.
Or a state-of-the-art Student Wellness Complex complete with a rock-climbing wall and indoor running track. “None of this stuff was here when I was,” Walsh said with just a hint of incredulity. “I’m going to make sure I at least get
to try out the lazy river now that I’m back.”
On an unseasonably balmy March day — even by Florida standards — Walsh did indeed get the chance to dip her toes in the water. But this visit to her alma mater wasn’t just a sightseeing trip or a walk down memory lane. She was here to work.
Walsh is a “SportsCenter” host and ESPN reporter who covers the big stories for “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.” That’s why she was uniquely qualified to give ESPN viewers a glimpse into the Swoop Life and introduce UNF and its Atlantic Sun Conference champion men’s basketball team to a national audience as it stood on the brink of a NCAA Tournament berth.
“Seeing my school accomplish what they did and then be sent down here to cover its accomplishments — it’s a dream come true for me,” she said.
Like many UNF alumni and supporters from across the globe, Walsh was rooting for the Ospreys Sunday, March 8,
as they battled for the Atlantic Sun Conference crown against the USC Upstate Spartans. She watched at home and spent the better part of the game jumping on her bed and cheering along, terrifying her dog in the process. Things got tight after an early second-half run by the Spartans, but Walsh’s confidence never wavered that the Ospreys would hold off the assault. As the final horn sounded and thousands of UNF fans poured onto the court to congratulate the victorious Ospreys, Walsh said she couldn’t help but shed a tear or two. That joyous feeling became all the more palpable the next day when she boarded a plane to Jacksonville to prepare for a full day of interviews with the UNF coaching staff and players — content that was used in a nearly five-minute UNF story package that aired multiple times on “SportsCenter” for millions of viewers.
Walsh and ESPN producer Allie Dodek, along with a two-man camera crew, started their reporting day at the UNF Arena chatting with players Chris Davenport, Dallas Moore and Demarcus “BaeBae” Daniels. They even interviewed Stephen Putnam, a mild-mannered freshman who morphed into his alter-ego, #UNFBandGuy, as UNF’s tournament journey heated up. A member of the Osprey Pep Band, Putnam became an overnight celebrity when his wild dance moves were caught on camera during the Atlantic Sun Championship game broadcast. Putnam said he first unveiled his patented moves during a UNF volleyball match earlier this year, but his technique really took off once basketball season came around. Sporting his go-to uniform of a blue-and-white rugby striped polo, Putnam flailed his way to fame, appearing on Yahoo Sports, People Magazine and “Inside Edition,” to name a few. He confided in Walsh that his moves are reserved solely for athletic events and declined to break them out on camera.
“If someone wants to see the dance, they have to come to the games and see it live,” he said. Daniels told Walsh that Putnam served an important motivational role for the team.“Every time he went out there and did his thing, we got a little more hyped up,” the 6-7 forward said. “He was going hard, so we had to go out there and give it our best, too.”
Walsh’s interviews with the players often touched on the close-knit, familial aspects of the UNF basketball team. She spoke with Davenport and Moore separately, both of whom are teammates and close friends. Davenport said a big reason he chose to attend UNF was that the coaching staff made it feel like home to him.
“These guys have become my family,” he said to Walsh. “They’ve made it clear that we’re all in this together, the team and the coaches.”
The patriarch of that family is undoubtedly Coach Matthew Driscoll. A bouncing ball of positively focused energy, Driscoll took Walsh on a walking tour of campus and summarized his feelings on the Ospreys’ tournament journey. He admitted to Walsh that he really hadn’t slowed down since the Ospreys’ victory against USC Upstate. Sleep was a mostly foreign concept to a coach at the helm of a basketball team making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. But thanks to a steady stream of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, his energy remained high. Driscoll, who came to UNF in 2009, described the campus as a “diamond in the rough” and told Walsh that he was excited to see his vision of a conference-championship team come to life.
This wasn’t the first time Driscoll and Walsh had chatted about UNF athletics. She said the coach and his wife Carrie, a UNF cheerleading coach, have sent her Osprey care packages over the years complete with UNF-branded gear. She credits Driscoll’s thoughtfulness and boundless energy with driving the basketball team’s ascent.
“What really struck me about the team is the grittiness they played with,” she said. “A lot of that comes from him [Driscoll]. There were a few moments in the playoffs where I was worried, but they played with this tenacity and calm demeanor when things got close. They kept scrapping and fighting and got it done. You can tell they’re very close as a team and believe in the message coach has given them.”
After hours on campus without taking a break, Walsh decided to close out her day with an interview in a particularly leisurely setting. Joined by Beau Beech, a starting guard on the team, Walsh jumped into an inner tube and conducted her final interview floating down the lazy river at the UNF Fountains residence hall.
“This is what got me to commit, I can tell you that much,” Beech said, laughing as the lazy river pushed his inner tube forward. “This is something you don’t have at Kentucky, you don’t have at Duke, because it’s probably snowing right now. But I mean, it’s 80 degrees right now and we’re in a pool.”
Walsh couldn’t help but agree as she floated peacefully down the lazy river while wearing her work clothes. She closed out her segment with a kicker adeptly summarizing her time on campus.
“The Ospreys may just be getting their tournament feet wet, but they’ve already mastered what it’s like to enjoy the ride.”
And for Walsh, she was able to return to the nest and immerse herself in the revitalized Swoop Life.
“I’m actually kind of glad there wasn’t a lazy river when I was here,” Walsh said. “I never would’ve gotten any work done!”
Walsh’s video is available online at espn.go.com/video/ clip?id=12481498.