Benefield: Cardinal Newman siblings rule the court

By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Gunnar, at 6-foot-8, and sister Lauren Walker, at 6-4, have helped their Cardinal Newman basketball teams to the top of the North Bay League. Photo by John Burgess / The Press Democrat

Gunnar, at 6-foot-8, and sister Lauren Walker, at 6-4, have helped their Cardinal Newman basketball teams to the top of the North Bay League.
Photo by John Burgess / The Press Democrat

Members of the Walker family are no strangers to the confines of the Cardinal Newman High School gym.

Gunnar Walker, a senior, has been playing basketball for the Cardinals for four years. His sister Lauren joined him on campus and on the hardwood two years ago.

Standing 6 feet, 8 inches, Gunnar Walker is the tallest member of the 17-2 Cardinals boys team that is in the thick of a four-team race for first place in the North Bay League. Lauren Walker is a 6-foot, 4-inch center for the 17-5 girls squad that is in sole possession of first place in league and has made short work of nearly every opponent it has faced.

As a result, Judy Groverman Walker and Jim Walker, both of Windsor, can practically call the Newman gym their second home. With boys and girls playing alternate nights, the Walkers are at the gym nearly as often as their kids.

“Right now, it’s every night. I absolutely love it,” said Jim Walker. “I’m going to be bummed when Gunnar doesn’t play next year. I’m going to miss this. This is the time of my life.”

Lucky for Jim, there are still plenty of games to go on both teams’ schedules. Unlucky for everyone they face, there are still plenty of games to go on both teams’ schedules.

The Cardinals — both boys and girls — are dominating opponents and making a strong case for deep playoff runs. And the Walker siblings are key components to both efforts.

“He just does a lot of things for our team,” veteran boys coach Tom Bonfigli said of Gunnar. “We wouldn’t be as good as we are without him.”

Both Bonfigli and Monica Mertle, head coach of the girls squad, praise the Walker siblings’ intelligence — on the court and otherwise. Both carry grade point averages well above what in the olden days was considered perfect — 4.0 — and both use those quick minds to figure out what others can’t, or won’t, on the court.

“We run about 40 (plays) but he knows what everybody else is supposed to do,” Bonfigli said. “He’s breaking down offensive sets that other teams run.”

“He covers up for a lot of mistakes we make,” he said.

Coachable? The Walkers are a dream in that department, both coaches agreed.

“She has completely bought into the idea of team over herself. She’s very unselfish,” Mertle said of Lauren. “She is an awesome role model for her peers.”

And just a sophomore who does not regularly start, Lauren Walker has posted impressive numbers in the Cardinals’ more-than-impressive season so far. She’s averaging 10.5 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 65 percent from the floor, according to Mertle.

And better yet? She hangs in not only against lesser skilled opponents, but against older, more seasoned athletes.

It’s a poise and confidence that has been honed over time but is becoming more apparent to Mertle and even to Walker herself.

“She has the potential to have success at any level but when we go into big games, when we are playing the cream of the crop, she is always there. She never disappears,” Mertle said.

The Walkers are imposing figures from a family rife with height. Mom Judy is 6-feet, 4-inches. She has a brother who is 6 feet, 10 inches.

“Both of my kids, they are so tall most of the coaches aren’t really sure what to do with them,” Judy Groverman Walker said. “This year both kids have just blossomed.”

Gunnar Walker was named a team captain by Bonfigli, who marvels at the senior’s leadership skills both on and off the court.

“He’s about team, about what his role on this team is, and doing whatever I ask him to do and doing it right,” Bonfigli said. “He listens, he learns, he’s trying to get better. He wants to do things right.”

Gunnar Walker said he gets a charge out of not only the physical aspects of the game, but the mental. He doesn’t mind being the brainy giant in the center of the key.

“I really like the intensity of it,” he said. “It’s a lot of strategy. I like that. I get a rush when I’m out there a lot of the time.”

For Lauren, basketball hasn’t always come first. Active in 4-H, Lauren was an equestrian more than a hoops player for many years.

“People would tell me I’d have to beat colleges off with a stick, but Lauren never really wanted to play, she was more into horses,” Jim Walker said. “But I think it was playing for Monica she really found the passion.”

And perhaps she gained a little spark watching and playing with her big brother on the driveway.

“We definitely push each other to be better and joke about it,” Lauren Walker said. “He will make sure I’m good under pressure, talking to me while I’m shooting, making sure I’m not fazed by it. Definitely taunting me, making me feel uncomfortable, just talking a lot.”

But sometimes the sibling tables are turned and when the boys team sits in the stands watching the girls squad compete, Gunnar Walker will get a poke in the ribs when Lauren Walker pulls a strong play.

“Gunnar’s teammates like to rib him a little about Lauren,” Jim Walker said. “I can see that, especially if Lauren is having a good night, I can look across the court and the boys are kind of ribbing him a little bit.”

Gunnar Walker had better gird himself for more pokes, according to Mertle.

“Usually tall players, they are just tall,” Mertle said. “But with Lauren, she is very skilled. She has worked really hard to improve.”

“She has all the potential in the world,” she said.

Bonfigli said the same thing.

And both coaches didn’t mean just on the basketball court. Sure the Walkers are tall, sure they are imposing figures on the hardwood. But more striking about both siblings is the work ethic, the maturity and thoughtfulness.

“As a person, she is probably one of the nicest, hardworking people I have ever met,” Mertle said.

Bonfigli is equally effusive about Gunnar Walker.

“I love the kid,” he said. “The kid has just been a gem. He’s just a jewel to coach. He’s the kind of guy you want on your team. He’s the kind of guy you would like as a son.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield.