By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — Some time early Friday evening, probably while the national anthem is playing inside the Pitt Center, Jessica Mannetti will afford herself the chance for a quick panoramic scan and an instant to appreciate how a dream hatched nearly two decades ago became reality.
Mannetti will take a peak and see over 40 family members and friends in the stands. She will look at her location in front of the bench and realize she has made it, moments away from her first game as a Division I head women’s basketball coach.
Better yet, it will be at Sacred Heart University, the school closest to the New Canaan community where Mannetti first became infatuated with a sport she hoped would forever become an active part of her life.
“I think from the moment I was a sophomore in high school I knew this was what I wanted,” Mannetti, 34, said over lunch on the Sacred Heart campus, not long after finishing her second-to-last practice before Friday night’s opener, at home against St. John’s. “I fell in love with basketball. Working together and being part of a team, and then have a goal to have a college coaching career. I couldn’t imagine my life without basketball. In high school I sort of knew, and then in college it was ‘That’s it, I want to coach.’ ”
After graduating from New Canaan High School in 1997, Mannetti went on to become a three-sport athlete at Concordia College, worked as both an AAU coach and with Five-Star Basketball, then landed the head job at Greens Farms Academy. She built the program up from junior varsity status and made enough of an impression in six seasons to get hired by Krista Kilburn-Steveskey as an assistant at Hofstra.
“She came in and had a lot to learn,” Kilburn-Steveskey recalled. “The first year is always tough. If you hold on and see a light at the end of the tunnel, it makes or breaks you, and it made her. She learned a lot and each year it blossomed. The last two years especially.”
When Ed Swanson, who took Sacred Heart to its first NCAA Tournament appearance and built it into a consistent winner during 23 seasons, accepted a position at William & Mary, Mannetti saw the right opportunity and fit to interview for her first head coaching job.
“It was a pretty rigorous process,” said Bobby Valentine, the Pioneers’ new athletic director, who was going to be making one of his first major hiring decisions. “She came across as a confident, energetic person who would give everything she has to the female athletes she would be involved with. She came highly recommended from the coach at Hofstra. We had very good candidates and knew we couldn’t go wrong with Jessica.”
Mannetti received the phone call from Valentine offering her the job at 10 a.m. on June 17.
“It was surreal at the moment,” Mannetti said. “It’s a day I will never forget. It was kind of like a dream come true. I feel like people really work hard for something and make a lot of sacrifices in their lives and it’s all for a big goal you have for yourself. To have this opportunity at Sacred Heart, it’s a blessing.”
The five months leading up to Friday night’s opener have been a microcosm of her career trajectory.
“Everything I’ve learned the last 10 years I’ve applied to everything I do now,” Mannetti said. “Basketball is the best part and it’s the least amount of what you do. It’s a lot of work. It’s a challenge every day. In terms of time management, of staff management, of player management and making sure academics is their first priority, and they can balance basketball with their academics and quality of life with the experience they have here.”
The Pioneers, who were picked to finish second in the Northeast Conference preseason poll, took a summer trip to play in Ireland, so Mannetti got 10 days of practice to get a head start working and bonding with her team.
Mannetti said the hardest part of the learning curve so far has been dealing with her mind on constant call.
“When you are a head coach you have to make a lot of decisions,” Mannetti said. “Whether it’s what kind of logo you want screened on a T-shirt, or what kind of pregame meal you want, or what kind of play you want to run when there’s 18 seconds left and it’s your ball and you’re down by 3. There are so many things you think about on a daily basis.”
Kilburn-Steveskey said she has no doubt Mannetti is ready to run a program.
“She’s very efficient,” Kilburn-Steveskey said. “She has the knowledge, great leadership, she knows how to delegate and manage people. I think she has every facet now that a head coach has to have.”
All the preparatory work — long and short term — is in the rear-view mirror. The Jessica Mannetti Era at Sacred Heart is about to tip off.
“I’m excited to debut what we’re all about,” Mannetti said. “To show Sacred Heart that maybe there’s a new face to the program and a new look to it, but it’s the same tradition that’s been here, the expectation of excellence.”
Before she calls her first play Friday night, or makes her first substitution or defensive adjustment, Mannetti will afford herself a pregame moment, however brief, to look at the surroundings and take it all in.
“This has been important to me for so long,” Mannetti said. “It’s pretty special. I couldn’t ask for a better shot at the top.”