After winning 20 games in first season at Seton Hall, Tony Bozzella seeks even greater heights in second campaign at his alma mater. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
When a coach wins 20 games in his first season removed from taking over a program that had experienced just four years over .500 since 1996, one might expect a sense of entitlement, maybe an understated arrogance even, going into the next season in search of an encore.
Tony Bozzella is not just any other coach, and if you know anything about the leader of Seton Hall women's basketball, it is that he is not satisfied with just getting to the top.
"We both figured it out," Bozzella, ever the relentless competitor, mentioned with regard to the adjustments both his staff and players had to make not just to their competition, but also to one another, en route to a 20-14 record that served as perhaps the boldest testimonial on a resume filled with reclamation projects and sustained success, one in which the 48-year-old Seton Hall alumnus introduced South Orange to the style he has made a career of, running the floor and taking no prisoners when the ball is in play, and coaching every player; regardless of skill, into a full-fledged prospect by the time she leaves for the next level, wherever that may be.
"I thought our big turning point was being able to get off to a 9-2 start non-league," Bozzella intimated, a beginning to the season that saw his Pirates challenge the likes of South Carolina and Illinois with a lineup that was undermanned at times before making a jump no one anticipated in Big East play, defeating schools such as Villanova and Marquette on the road to a quarterfinal appearance in the WNIT.
For Bozzella, who was hired not just to get his alma mater to the top, but also to firmly entrench it there, the postseason experience; Seton Hall's first since 2007, is something he hopes is only the beginning of a new and promising era.
"The optimism is higher than I thought it would be," he admitted. "We have great crowds, great advance season ticket sales, great enthusiasm for the program, and that's where I think we've gained. The enthusiasm is really there, from the alumni to our fan support, that's much higher than I thought it would be at the beginning of the year."
An experienced roster that returns both of the Pirates' top two scorers in junior forward Tabatha Richardson-Smith and senior point guard Ka-Deidre Simmons, coupled with an influx of talented newcomers, is a major catalyst to the enthusiasm, even before the infectious spirit and will to win of Bozzella and his staff comes into play.
"I'm happy with the roster," the coach stated, "because basically, the five players from the old regime have completely bought into what we want to do, and that's why they're still here. Between last year and this year, we've added eleven new kids. I think we have two of the best players in the league."
Aside from Richardson-Smith and Simmons, Kentucky expatriate Bra'Shey Ali and Janee Johnson, the latter returning for a sixth year, are back to give Seton Hall four returning starters, and the experience will get even greater next season when Aleesha Powell, who played for Bozzella at Iona, is eligible after sitting out this year following her transfer from New Rochelle and a Gaels program that won the MAAC regular season championship behind a lineup of fellow Bozzella recruits the likes of Haley D'Angelo, Sabrina Jeridore, Joy Adams, and two-time reigning MAAC Player of the Year Damika Martinez.
Powell is not the only new face in South Orange, however, as La Salle castoff Jordan Mosley is eligible after redshirting last season, and 6-3 junior college transfer Tiffany Jones arrives to boost a front line that is already loaded with mounds of size, something Bozzella had not always been able to enjoy at Iona. In addition, 6-5 center Chizoba Ekedigwe gives the Pirates a shot-blocking element in the post that not many Big East programs possess, and should be a factor more often than not. The coach is also waiting for final NCAA rulings on two other transfers, the first being 6-4 center Lubirdia Gordon, who transferred from West Virginia to be closer to her mother, who is battling illness; and the other being a much higher-profile case, that being Alabama expatriate Daisha Simmons, who has notoriously, and wrongfully, been blocked by the Crimson Tide thus far.
Of Bozzella's three-player freshman class this season, he was quick to point out the progress of 6-1 guard Claire Lundberg, a Minnesota native who "is shooting the ball as well as anyone I've ever coached. She's a better player than I thought she was. She has to catch up to the speed of the game, but once she does, she can really stroke it."
Jordan Molyneaux, a 6-2 freshman center from Denver, is the second member of the trio of rookies, with the third being a living example of the family environment that Bozzella has fostered within his program for years, his daughter, Samantha.
"Sam is a unique player, I'll say that," the elder Bozzella said of his offspring, speaking in equal parts coach and parent. "She's as smart a player as I've ever coached. She knows the game well, and I just love having her around."
The combination of youth and proven leadership opens the season on November 14 at home against Rider in the preseason WNIT, a matchup that pits Bozzella against one of his former adversaries in Lynn Milligan and the Broncs, who lose all-conference player MyNeshia McKenzie, but still return a formidable core.
"We've upgraded our schedule," Bozzella declared, with Illinois and reigning Atlantic 10 champion Fordham highlighting the nonconference portion of the ledger, a testament to where he envisions this program. "We feel we have a good team, and if we can win some games and be tough, then we have a chance for an at-large."
UConn, Notre Dame and Louisville are no longer part of the Big East, but the conference is still capable of sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to DePaul, St. John's, Creighton, and perhaps Seton Hall as well. When asked if Bozzella felt his team was capable of being mentioned among the elite, his answer was; unsurprisingly, an emphatic and affirmative "yes."
"We do," he proclaimed, "and that's why I scheduled non-league appropriately. I think we could have a good enough record in the Big East to get three or four teams in. We're up for the challenge. That's what we want."
As far as what fans can expect when filing into Walsh Gym, the second-year architect of what could be a budding dynasty offered this primer.
"We're going to play very hard, very passionate," Bozzella advised. "I think that's the one thing our team really developed. It starts with me. I'm a very enthusiastic guy, that's what I demand, that's our standard. I think we'll shoot the ball better from three, last year we did not. We only had one kid, this year, we'll have about five or six kids. I think offensively, we can improve too. We went from 51 points a game to 71. I'm hoping we can get closer to 80. We need to. I think they understand what I want now, and with that being said, we can be more competitive and better, but our record might not be as good because our schedule is that much harder."