Head coach Jennifer Rizzotti hit the ground running at the beginning of her five-year stint at GW.
During the 2016-17 season, her first team found its way to the WNIT. Her second team claimed the 2018 Atlantic 10 Championship, hanging the program’s seventh A-10 banner in the Smith Center rafters and sending the squad to the NCAA tournament.
But her squad’s pace began to slow in the three following years that saw the program record a 33-50 three-year overall record. And one week after this season ended with a 9-14 overall record, Rizzotti and her seven-member coaching staff were fired.
Rizzotti could not be directly reached for comment, but Mike Anthony of The Middletown Press reported about her departure. She told Middletown Press last week that she had a year left on her contract and that her firing came down to the “wins and losses,” which she called surprising given the “really positive” feedback she had received.
“I don’t regret choosing to go to GW for one second,” she told The Middletown Press. “It might not have been the best fit for me at the end of the day, but the relationships I made with my staff and my players, I’ll cherish them for the rest of my life.”
Former student-athletes recall playing under Rizzotti
Six former players said Rizzotti and her coaching staff pushed them to perform their best on the court. But they didn’t remember the wins and losses as much as they cherished the time spent off the court with Rizzotti and her staff, the former players said.
2019-graduate guard Mei-Lyn Bautista said Rizzotti’s firing surprised and hurt her.
“She taught me how to be a leader, how to be confident, and she was invested in who I was, making sure that I was set up for success no matter what I wanted to do and be,” Bautista said.
She added that Rizzotti and her staff focused on ensuring everyone was working as hard as they could, while developing their leadership skills and understanding that everyone brought different skill sets to the team.
“I would rewind time and do it all over again if I could,” Bautista said. “If I ever have the opportunity to be under her again, whether that’s as a staff member or anything because I am interested in coaching and college athletics, I would love to do that in a heartbeat.”
Alexandra Maund, a forward who used her final year of eligibility at GW, said Rizzotti had treated her as “her own kid” on and off the court. During the first months of the pandemic when she struggled to find a place to store her personal belongings, she said Rizzotti cleared out her basement and offered her room.
“We just kind of sat in her kitchen after we were done moving everything and just talked about life and the season and what I had going ahead, and I just really connected with her as just like a mother figure to me,” Maund said.
Maund said she “absolutely loved” being coached by Rizzotti and described her as one of the “most uplifting” coaches she ever had.
“I just felt like I was being seen in a way that I hadn’t been use to for a couple of years,” Maund said. “And she, in her trusting in me and seeing something in me, I started to believe that I could play for myself. She really helped me with my competence as a basketball player.”
Hannah Schaible, a 2017 graduate and guard who played for two coaches at GW, said because Rizzotti had “gone through the gauntlet” as a college player, professional player and coach, she could better connect to her players. She added that as someone who lived through a coaching change, players might feel uneasy about playing for a new regime.
“Long term, I’m sure GW will put out a great interview process and find another great match,” she said. “Short term, as a player who had to go through a coaching change, it can be a little strenuous, and especially if a new coach comes in and has a different kind of mentality.”
Student-athletes leave following firing
Rizzotti’s departure prompted an exodus of student-athletes from the roster and into the transfer portal. Redshirt junior forward Neila Luma, freshman center Ali Brigham and freshman forward Caranda Perea all announced their intentions to leave the University in the wake of the coaching change.
All three did not respond to requests for comment. Athletic department spokespeople declined to facilitate interviews with student-athletes and Athletic Director Tanya Vogel, saying the department would not comment on “personnel matters.”
The Colonials will lose key sources of production on the court with Luma and Brigham’s departures. Luma has been a mainstay in the lineup for Rizzotti since her freshman year and averaged 7.7 points per game this season.
Luma and graduate student guard Sydney Zambrotta were the only two players that did not sign a statement from the squad expressing its surprise and displeasure at Rizzotti and her staff’s firings.
Brigham quickly found herself as the centerpiece of GW’s offense during her first year in Foggy Bottom. Racking up 11.9 points per game, Brigham constituted 21.2 percent of the team’s entire scoring output.
Perea missed a chunk of the season due to injury but became a part of the rotation over the course of the campaign, averaging 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
GW also elected not to bring back any of the coaches serving under Rizzotti, including assistant coaches Kevin DeMille, Bill Sullivan and Ganiyat Adeduntan. Graduate assistants Anna Savino, Sarah Overcash and Ariel Stephenson and director of operations Christina Richardson are also no longer with the team.
DeMille, Overcash, Stephenson and Richardson did not return requests for comment. Adeduntan declined to comment.
Savino started her career with the team as a manager during her freshman year before joining the roster as a walk-on during her senior year and starting 27 games. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Savino joined the coaching staff for the 2019-20 season.
Savino said she found out about the coaching changes directly from Rizzotti and that she was “not privy” to any information that suggested the staff would be let go. Savino was planning to leave the program upon graduation and did not intend to further her coaching career.
“I would say my experience was completely shaped because of the women’s basketball program and Coach Rizzotti herself,” Savino said. “I couldn’t imagine what my time at GW would be like if it wasn’t for them.”