PORTSMOUTH —Truth be told, basketball coaching changes simply don’t happen in mid-November —at a season’s outset.
However, Wednesday wasn’t your normal run-of-the-mill mid-week business-as-usual afternoon atop Sunrise Avenue in Portsmouth.
That’s because the Notre Dame Lady Titans will not have veteran head coach J.D. McKenzie leading them this season —or at least not for the immediate future.
Instead, Matt Payton —the Lady Titans reserve head coach of the past three seasons —steps in on an interim basis as the varsity head coach.
Wednesday was also the annual Notre Dame basketball Media Day, and Payton informed The Portsmouth Daily Times of the leadership change.
The successful mentor McKenzie has guided the Lady Titans for the past 13 seasons, while still serving as principal at Notre Dame High School.
McKenzie is stepping away from coaching due to family and personal reasons, but will remain as the NDHS building principal.
McKenzie responded to a text message from The Portsmouth Daily Times seeking comment on Wednesday evening, but he chose to not comment “at this time”.
Again, Payton is the new head coach on an interim basis —meaning McKenzie’s stepping aside is only considered temporary for the time being.
For Payton, he is entering his 14th season involved in coaching basketball —including the past three as McKenzie’s junior varsity coach.
He has always been an assistant, as his duties have included video coordinator and statistician.
He was at Portsmouth for eight years with the boys program under head coach Gene Collins, spent one year at Clay assisting Adam Betten, returned to PHS, and is now in his fourth season with the Notre Dame girls.
Payton spoke on the situation as part of his Media Day interview with The Portsmouth Daily Times.
He said he and McKenzie informed the Lady Titans of the coaching change on Wednesday near noon.
“It’s an interim basis right now. J.D. (McKenzie) has had some family issues come up and he needs to take time and step away and take care of those. We always preach here family first. God, family, and team. It’s time for him to take some time with his family,” said Payton.
Although, the program —per Payton — “will continue doing what it’s been doing.”
“Nothing really changes. We as a program have instilled things where it’s become nice building-block steps. From junior high up, we’re all running the same things, all looking to the same outcomes. We’re all on the same page,” he said. “We always preach that ‘next man up’. Now it’s my turn to kind of take the reigns and go forward.”
Payton does have six seniors leading the Lady Titans’ way, a group he has familiarity with since their freshman year.
The Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association Southeast District Division IV Player of the Year and first-team all-Ohioan Annie Dettwiller did graduate, but all-district second-teamer Gracie Ashley and her 10 points per game return —along with third-teamers Katie Strickland (8.3 ppg) and Ella Kirby (9.4 ppg).
Another senior, point guard Annabelle Ball, was the squad’s sixth man —and she earned Special Mention all-district.
“Familiarity with them, I’ve been with them for the last three years. This is the first full group I’ve been here with,” said Payton. “Six girls coming back that have played a lot of basketball together and have won a lot of games.”
Just how many games you ask?
Under McKenzie’s leadership, the Lady Titans have captured 11 Southern Ohio Conference Division I championships in the past dozen years —sans 2014 when Eastern won it that year.
Their astonishing SOC winning streak currently stands at 118 —as with the realignment of the SOC into three divisions, the Lady Titans resume league play in January.
For those into counting, the state record for consecutive conference victories is 141 — by the private-school powerhouse that is indeed Columbus Africentric (2004 thru 2015).
As for regular-season win streaks in general, the Lady Titans tallied 51 in a row — from 2017 thru 2019.
Notre Dame has eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories, 13 straight sectional titles, and four Division IV Southeast District championships (2018, 2019, 2020 and 2023).
Twice the Lady Titans have been Region 15 runner-up —in 2020 to Fort Frye, followed by last season to Hiland.
Before the 2010-11 season, Notre Dame’s only league AND sectional championship for girls basketball was in 1984.
Four full decades later, Notre Dame dominates much of the small-school competition throughout Southeastern Ohio.
Payton said “it will be big shoes to fill”, though.
The Lady Titans open the season against Eastern at home on Nov. 30.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, but this is a really fun group to coach,” said Payton. “I’m really excited to see how this year turns out. I think the girls are ready and excited to get going. They are tired of going against each other in practice. It’s not the same without J.D. here, but it is the same. Our goals are still the same. We want to be the hardest-working team on the court every night, come in and take care of business and win every game that we can.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on X @paulboggssports © 2023 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved