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The members of Oldham County’s girls’ basketball team sat dejected in their locker room following their 59-31 loss to Martha Layne Collins.
Coach Stephen Mullins and Assistant Coach Jeff Walton spoke to the team after the game, but Walton didn’t offer the typical pick-me-up.
Walton, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Persian Gulf War and National Guardsman who served in Iraq, retrieved from his office the Purple Heart medal he earned in 2007. Walton presented the medal to junior forward Sarah Lopesilvero to keep until the Lady Colonels’ next game. Her hustle earlier in the game inspired Walton to start what he hopes is a tradition of presenting the medal to a deserving OCHS player after each game.
Though the Lady Colonels have had their share of disappointments this season at 5-8, Walton’s experiences serve as motivation to keep the players going. Walton also brings a new level of intensity through his enthusiasm, Mullins said.
Walton said seeing Lopesilvero twice dive out of bounds for a loose ball on the same play against Collins gave him a spur-of-the-moment idea to pick an OCHS player of the game to keep his medal until the following game.
Walton said he saw in Lopesilvero flashes of the same courage he saw in Iraq.
“I know it when I see it,” Walton said. “No one says, ‘I’m gonna run into a burning house to save someone.’ It’s just instinct.”
Walton served as a military policeman with the National Guard during tours of duty in 2003 and 2007 in Iraq where his duties included protecting the troop’s captain.
On Dec. 15, 2007, a roadside bomb detonated as Walton’s convoy of Humvees passed by it on their way from his base to a community center opening in Baghdad.
Nine ball bearings from the blast lodged in Walton’s protective vest, two in his helmet and two in his right arm. Walton needed 12 surgeries to clear the infection and save his right arm, but the blast destroyed the triceps on his right arm and he temporarily lost the use of his right hand.
Walton returned to the United States, but didn’t return to his job as a police office in Charleston, S.C. He regained the use of his hand after a year and a half of rehabilitation and decided he wanted to coach basketball, which he played in high school.
He moved to Oldham County in August, after the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization, helped Walton set up his own business, Weathersby Guild of Louisville. Walton now repairs and restores furniture.
Walton, who also coached as an assistant on the junior college and high school levels in North Carolina, joined the Lady Colonels in September. His military experience prompted Mullins to use military themes and slogans as rallying cries for the team.
Mullins uses phrases like “Humvee time” and “time for war” to motivate his team.
Walton assists Mullins in tactics and plays during practices and games and is constantly shouting words of encouragement to the team.
Before each game, Walton lines the players up on the floor holding a basketball.
He motions right, then left and drops the ball on the floor. The players perform shuttles in each direction and dive on the floor towards the ball.
Mullins said he’s impressed by the Lady Colonels’ added hustle this season. But he had no idea Walton would be handing his medal to the players.
“This guy was asked to give his life and did that,” Mullins said. “It’s not too much for us to ask for them to play hard for 32 minutes or buy into the season. It’s not like we’re asking them to put their lives on the line.”
OCHS junior guard Rebecca Heite became the second player to keep the medal after a strong defensive effort in a loss to Simon Kenton.
“It kinda made me feel like I was noticed for how hard I was working,” Heite said. “It meant a lot because I know how hard he worked for it.”
Walton said he didn’t award the medal Friday after the Lady Colonels’ 76-29 loss at South Oldham because none of the players earned it. But he plans on awarding the medal every game an OCHS player gives extra effort.
“No one is called brave until after you do something,” Walton said. “Most of the time they did it and they didn’t know it. If it turns out that this team goes on to win the state championship, which I think they all have the talent to do, it won’t be that I did anything. They play the game. But I give back as much as I can and have fun doing it.”
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