Two years ago, Seton Hall women's basketball was stuck in a rut, to put it lightly.
The Pirates, heading into their third season under Hall-of-Fame head coach Anne Donovan, had just completed a 1-15 Big East campaign, languishing at the bottom of the best women's basketball conference in America. It was the third straight season that they finished with just one conference win.
Then-sophomore point guard Ka-Diedre Simmons, predicted to form a talented and productive backcourt with combo guard and scoring machine Jasmine Crew, tore her ACL in the preseason and never got the chance to build on a strong freshman season the year before.
In short, Seton Hall wasn't yet headed in the right direction, or any direction for that matter. Since the 2006-07 season, the Hall had registered just 10 total Big East wins in five seasons. Walsh Gym, which can be deafeningly loud and intimidating at its best, was just another pit stop for Big East foes- the Pirates had not won a conference game at home since the last day of the 2008-09 season.
The Hall was over-matched. They needed a spark, badly- something to make fans believe again, to make themselves believe again.
In the 2012-13 campaign, the little bit of spark came in the form of five conference wins, including three at home. They beat Pitt to open up league play at Walsh Gym, a moment of catharsis for those who had followed the team through the lean times.
Then, they shocked the league by knocking off local rivals and established Big East powers Rutgers and St. John's. To top things off, they won a Big East tournament game for the first time in four seasons. Simmons came back strong from her knee injury, and teamed up with senior sharpshooter Brittany Morris to give Seton Hall women's basketball a pulse again.
But then their leader, Donovan, took a job in the WNBA, becoming the head coach of the Connecticut Sun. Suddenly, the Pirates were in need of a new leader- someone who could take that pulse and turn it into a steady drumbeat of progress. Someone who knew what it took to rebuild, and also win. Someone who was enthusiastic enough to win back the fans and make Walsh Gym a true home court again.
Enter Tony Bozzella.
You can tell from the very first instant that you come across the whirling dervish that is Anthony Bozzella exactly what kind of person he is.
Off the court, his outgoing nature exceeds his small physical stature- you would be hard-pressed to say anything negative about him. On the court, passion oozes from his every pore to help his basketball teams not only win, but believe they can run through solid steel to do it.
And as a Seton Hall alum, he bleeds Blue and White, 24/7/365.
The well-kept secret of the Pirates' 2012-13 campaign was the fact that the Pirates weren't un-talented. The recruiting classes Donovan had brought in had added pieces like do-it-all guard Alexis Brown, athletic and rangy wing Tabatha Richardson-Smith, skilled power forwards Janee Johnson and Sidney Cook, plus rebounding machine Bra'Shey Ali. For Cook and Ali, they had to sit out that 2012-13 season due to injury and transfer regulations, respectively.
But coming into the new season in 2013-14, the cupboard was no longer bare. These girls could play, but needed a little more direction. Coincidentally, the Big East's iron ceiling that was Notre Dame, Louisville, UConn, USF, and Rutgers was lifted off as conference realignment took its toll.
Things were falling into place for the Pirates to once again ascend the standings. It would not be easy, but the spark was there.
Heading into the new season, fans fell in love instantly with the new head coach, and there was hope for the best as the team adjusted to new management. No one was sure how it would translate onto the court.
Now, those concerns are long gone.
Through the non-conference schedule, the Pirates were winning. They had to go through early injuries much like the men's basketball team did, but it was clear from Day 1 something good was taking place in South Orange.
Buoyed by their new, fervent head coach and his staff, plus an up-tempo system that played perfectly into the hands of the athletic team he had to work with, Seton Hall took care of their non-conference schedule with relative ease, suffering blemishes to only nationally-ranked South Carolina and Big Ten foe Illinois, both times on the road. At Walsh, the Pirates were a perfect 9-0 before their Big East slate started.
At their best, the Pirates were a pressing, trapping, turnover-inducing machine on defense, getting their opposition to cough the ball up and then running the other way for layups and transition threes. On offense, when they weren't running like the wind, a system was installed that was built on ball movement, featuring screens on and away from the ball and sets designed to get players looks from the spots on the floor where they were comfortable.
With All-Big East First Teamer Simmons at the controls, Bozzella had the perfect point guard to run this system- quick as lightning and fearless while also being a great passer. Richardson-Smith absolutely flourished, upping her scoring average by over 10 points per game, becoming the Big East Most-Improved Player in the process. She truly showed what she could do on the run, becoming not only a great transition player, but a deadly outside shooter as well, and her long-armed six-foot frame was a terror at the front of Seton Hall's press.
After returning from injury, Brown did what she does- a little bit of everything. She handled the ball, drove inside with nifty dribble moves, defended, rebounded, and even sometimes shot well from the outside, giving Seton Hall a multi-faceted weapon to complement Simmons and Richardson-Smith. In the post, Johnson contributed a strong season both down low and also at the high post. Cook showed why she was one of the top forwards in the nation coming out of high school, showing athleticism and a nose for the ball on the glass in her first season in Blue and White.
Speaking of nose for the ball, there weren't many post players who could stay with Ali on the boards. Sneakily quick with long arms, the transfer from Kentucky was one of the best rebounders in the entire conference despite standing only six feet tall.
With freshmen Tara Inman and Theresa Kucera providing depth off the bench, the Pirates battled all season long. With their only real weakness being consistent outside shooting, especially when Richardson-Smith was off, the Hall improved seemingly every week when fully healthy.
The Pirates posted an 8-10 Big East record, and they might have had a winning record had it not been for a couple tough losses. But they sent a message to the rest of the league that no longer would they be taken lightly.
Selected to play in the postseason for the first time since 2006-07, the Pirates made the WNIT. But they did more than just show up. They knocked off American and Princeton in close contests at historic Walsh Gym before heading to the RAC to face former conference foe Rutgers in the "Sweet 16" round.
And they came to play. Two busloads of students, plus the band, cheerleaders and dance team combined to make the crowd about 60-40, much different from what it had been in past years. In the double overtime defeat, Bozzella's team played as hard as they could, but foul trouble nipped them at the end. Nevertheless, the Pirates faced the preeminent women's basketball program in New Jersey and sent a message that while there may not be a new sheriff in town in that regard, the Hall is to be taken lightly no longer.
Not only did the Pirates perform this season, but Bozzella will have a chance to build continuity as well. Nearly every single key player will return in 2014-15, including Simmons, Brown, Richardson-Smith and Ali.
Seton Hall will add two well-regarded players next season as well, with Claire Lundberg (whom Bozzella called "one of the best shooters I have ever seen at the high school level") and Jordan Molyneaux (a 6-4 post player from a top-level high school program who can run the floor and rebound, playing right into Bozzella's system) coming on.
It has been a very long time since the Pirates' future was this bright. The team's slogan this season was "Something to Prove," and the Hall proved it can once again play with the best in the Big East. Now, the task is to prove that they can stay competitive year in and year out.
And with Bozzella patrolling the sidelines and pouring his heart and soul into the program, you can bet that goal is once again attainable in South Orange.