Stepping into the right situation appealed to GW's Jen Rizzotti
The first-year GW head coach, whose team had lost by 19 points at home two days earlier to nationally ranked Stanford, was a woman on a mission after one of just two Division I women’s basketball games in the country was held Dec. 23.
After addressing her team following a tougher than expected 74-64 win over Loyola (Md.) in the Colonials’ last non-conference game of the season, Rizzotti handled her post-game media obligations and then made a beeline for the airport with her family.
Even after 17 seasons as the head coach at the University of Hartford, some things have not changed for the former All-American guard at UConn.
Rizzotti, despite being hundreds of miles away at GW, was able to catch a 5:15 p.m. flight to Hartford and be at her parents’ home by 7 p.m. for a few days of relaxation before resuming practice Dec. 28 back at the Foggy Bottom campus.
“It will be a nice little break,” said Rizzotti, who is from New Fairfield, Conn. “Always home for Christmas.”
The break was even sweeter after a few days of preparation GW stormed past Duquesne 75-40 on Jan. 1 in a rematch of the 2016 Atlantic 10 title game. The Colonials led 31-7 after the first quarter against the Dukes, and that made the holiday break seem even better.
Rizzotti and Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade were part of a group at the White House on Thursday to participate in the It's On Us campaign panel discussion "Changing the Culture Through Sports."
She and her husband, Bill Sullivan, a 1995 UConn graduate and the GW associate head coach, have two sons, Holden and Conor. Sullivan also has family in the Hartford area and they have been going there every holiday season for the better part of two decades, with family in the towns of Glastonbury and Hebron.
“One of the attractions to taking this job was how easy it is to get back there,” she said. “I can jump on a flight and be back there in 45 minutes … it’s a pretty good deal.”
Another attraction, certainly, is that Rizzotti assumed leadership of a program that won the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title the past two seasons. She took over for Jonathan Tsipis, who became the head coach at Wisconsin after last season.
Even with the loss of Jonquel Jones to the WNBA — as the sixth overall pick by the Connecticut SUN — GW was picked to finish fourth this year in the conference.
The Colonials were 10-5 overall.
“Playing for her has been amazing thus far,” said senior Caira Washington, the Most Outstanding Player in the 2016 conference tournament. “When she is talking to us in practice it is like she is still a point guard. She pushes for us to play the game perfectly and be smarter. That is the main thing she stresses.”
GW also returned senior guard Hannah Schaible, an all-tournament team player in 2016; senior guard Shannon Cranshaw, who had a team-high 32 three-pointers last season; and sophomore guard Mei-Lyn Bautista, an A-10 All-Rookie team member.
“I feel there is always room for improvement,” Rizzotti said. “There is room for us to get better.”
“I am surprised at how receptive and coachable this team is. I didn’t what I was walking into,” noted Rizzotti, who added you pick a school, athletic director and conference but take what players are already there. “I knew they were great players. There is never a hesitation when that they say, ‘We did it this way.’ Their response to the challenges I have put in front of them has been amazing.”
Rizzotti was inducted in to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 after an All-American career at UConn. She played there for Geno Auriemma, who has made UConn into a dynasty.
“Jennifer has built a reputation of leading and mentoring at every step of her life in athletics,” GW athletic director Patrick Nero said when she was hired.
She has been compared a lot to Auriemma. But how is she different?
“I think demeanor, probably pretty similar. I don’t have a lot of patience and I think that shows pretty much on my face all of the time,” Rizzotti said. “I think I am probably a little more emotional and passionate; maybe that is a woman versus man thing. I am younger; I am sure he was different 20 or 30 years ago. I joke with him that I spend more time on defense (than he does) and he spends more time on offense. He feels you are always going to be better if you can’t be stopped (on offense). He is always challenging me to focus more on offense.”
Rizzotti posted a record of 316-216 (.594) at Hartford and made six NCAA appearances.
“Obviously I’m partial. But there are few people I have met in my life who were born to do this,” Auriemma said in a statement when Rizzotti was named GW's coach in April. “Jen was born to lead people, to set an example for others and to raise young people from who they are to who they want to be. Jen Rizzotti doesn’t know how to do anything else but lead.”