He needed a job. The Gamecocks needed a coach. And the convergence has produced one of the biggest turnarounds in Division I women’s college basketball this season.
In a job worthy of Coach of the Year consideration, the one-time high school boys coach and small college men’s assistant has turned a team that was one of the worst in the country into one squarely in the middle of the race for a berth in its conference tournament.
The Gamecocks won only one game last season — coming in their next to last game — and only five over the previous two, but with virtually the same players they had the year before, they are 11-16 and effectively one game away from qualifying for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. They’re one of five teams in the country with at least a 10-win improvement, but clearly the one that had the furthest to come.
“When I got the job I truly had no idea what I was working with,” Pietri said. “All I had was the stats that I saw from the previous year and once I got the job I began watching video to actually see what they had done and what I was dealing with.
“Did I want there to be improvement? You better believe I did, but honestly I had no idea what that improvement was going to mean … because I knew virtually nothing about the league.
“One thing I said at a speaking engagement was I did not know how many games we were going to win, but what I did know was we were going to look different. I was certain of that, because I had seen them on tape. I knew we were going to look different than that. What the ceiling was, I had no idea, but I knew there had to be a way to make it better than what currently existed.”
The “that” meant a team playing with intensity and earning the respect of its opponents. It reached a point last season visiting teams didn’t even bother coming into Pete Mathews Coliseum for their pre-game shoot-around. If a game was decided by fewer than a dozen points it was considered close.
Winning just one more game than the year before wasn’t going to be good enough, junior guard Candace Morton said. The players wanted a lot more and knew they had the potential to deliver.
Now, most every game they play is a battle to the end and their growing legion of supporters usually leave the gym satisfied with what they’ve seen. It started right away, with many JSU fans approaching the new coach after the preseason exhibition — for many, their first look at Pietri’s team — to express their excitement to see that kind of fire return to the women’s team.
He called the response “encouraging.”
There has been the occasional misstep, of course, but since mid-January the Gamecocks are one of the hottest teams in the OVC. They’ve won more games since Jan. 11 than they had the last two seasons combined. With a win Saturday at Southeast Missouri they should punch their ticket to the conference tournament, a place they hadn’t been since 2011 — before any of the current players arrived on campus.
“Things are a lot different — in the crowd, even at school and in the community,” junior post Miranda Cantrell said. “We’re excited to come to practice. We’re excited to do shoot-around. We’re excited to do everything now.
“Last year we were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go practice. We’ve got to be in the gym 2 1/2 hours. Why, it’s not like we’re winning?’ Now we’re coming to the gym and teams have to compete with us. This year they have to come to the shoot-around. It’s a big difference in how they’re looking at us. They’re thinking they actually have to come to play. We’re not going to lay down. They actually have to prepare to play Jax State.”
Jim Davis, the head coach at Tennessee Tech, didn’t hesitate in agreeing the turnaround was worthy of Coach of the Year consideration. Morehead State coach Tom Hodges has been equally impressed by what Pietri has done with the Gamecocks.
It’s not the first time Pietri has been called upon to bring a downtrodden program back from the ashes. He took over a South Alabama program that had 10 straight losing seasons and while his first team didn’t break that string, it did produce the program’s winningest season in 10 years. Two years later it won a conference division championship and played in the Women’s NIT.
Pietri acknowledged it’s a lot harder to sell change when you walk into a situation that had been successful with another method than one where “what they were doing was totally unsuccessful.”
And make no mistake the Gamecocks were dreadful when he took over.
Last year, they came within a week of being one of two teams in Division I to be winless. Of 343 Division I women’s programs, they ranked 320 or worse in half of the NCAA’s 18 major statistical categories.
They were No. 342 out of 345 teams in the season’s final RPI. They are No. 281 out of 347 teams in the current rankings, sixth among teams from the OVC.
“We’re becoming beyond successful with Coach Pietri,” said Morton, the team’s leading scorer. “Ever since that Eastern Illinois game (Jan. 11), the light bulb clicked. At the time they were voted high in our conference, so when we beat them … that’s what put the thought in our mind that we can beat anyone if we bring the right energy level.”
Pietri’s arrival was a product of perfect timing. He wasn’t retained at South Alabama — despite a third straight 17-13 year and nine winning seasons — by an athletics director who hadn’t hired him. The Gamecocks were in need of a coach after Annette Watts surprised their administration by accepting a coaching job at a high school in her home county. Watts’ bubbly personality played well with a fan base that had seen the program win only 34 games over the previous four years, but even that wasn’t enough as the team continued to lose.
In the meantime, Pietri pursued some major-college assistant jobs — getting close on one — a few head coaching jobs and was even offered two boys high school jobs in Mobile, which prompted him to enroll in summer school at South Alabama to renew his teaching certification. But after 13 years in the big chair, he wanted to be a Division I head coach.
He only got introduced to his JSU players the day before they left for the summer, which created another set of challenges. He wasn’t going to have any face time with the players he inherited again until August, so he spent much of his early days on the phone selling himself to them.
“The first thing that needed to be established was that I had a relationship with these kids,” he said. “I felt it was important for them to feel a sense that I was invested in them. … I don’t know how much of that they had before. I think these kids were hungry to have a relationship with the head coach.”
With that came establishing expectations for behavior on and off the floor, the tough love that came with transgressions and — perhaps the biggest element to the turnaround — the trust the players said “just wasn’t there” last season. There also was developing a playing style for a roster admittedly different than ones Pietri was accustomed to building.
The newness brought enthusiasm early, but the transition wasn’t without tests. Once the players understood the line wasn’t moving incidents became less frequent.
It’s all about transparency for Pietri. He’s going to make sure the players know the score. They might not like what they see through the transparency, but they’ll never be uncertain where they stand. And they like that.
“I knew from the beginning it’d be totally different,” Cantrell said. “He told us from the jump he was going to be straight forward with us.
“At the end of the year … the way (Watts) treated us it seemed like she was playing favoritism. A girl who didn’t even practice the day before started the next game. Coach Pietri, he’s not playing favorites -- do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll get your playing time. We couldn’t trust what she was saying or doing because it was contradicting herself the whole time. We can trust what he’s saying, what he’s doing and believe in it. What he’s doing is going to benefit us in the long run. He’s looking to build us up instead of making him look good.”
The Gamecocks have two games left in the regular season, possibly more depending how those games unfold. With their next win, they will secure their winningest season since 2005.
“It’s been a good story,” Pietri said. “On New Year’s morning I don’t know of anybody — myself included — would’ve thought we’d be 7-7 in the league at this stage.
“I didn’t want to set a numerical goal because I had no idea. In the back of my mind I hoped we could get to 10. I really wanted to get to double digits, but I didn’t know what … we’d have to beat to get to 10. We’re at 10, but that doesn’t mean I’m finished. We’re going to keep trying to win more games.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.