Nov. 18, 2002
On April 11, 2002, Marnie Dacko was introduced to the media at a Mullins Center press conference as the ninth head coach in the 34-year history of the Massachusetts women's basketball program. Instead of coming in and rebuilding the team like is often the scenario when a new coaching staff takes over, Dacko inherits a squad with seven seniors and no true freshmen.
Judit Zsedenyi, a transfer from Cottey (Mo.) Junior College, will join the team this year, as will Ashley Sharpton, a sophomore from the University of North Carolina Asheville. While Zsedeni will play this season, Sharpton, a member of the Big South All-Rookie team a year ago, will be forced to sit out per NCAA transfer rules. With all five starters from last season back, including second team All-Conference and All-Defensive team selection Jennifer Butler, the future is now and the Minutewomen are looking make a major push for the 2002-03 Atlantic 10 title. Earlier this month, the Maroon and White sat down with the new leader to see just how Dacko's Minutewomen are preparing for the fast-approaching season.
M&W: When you sat down with your team at the beginning of practice, what goals did you lay out for them?
Dacko: "I came in with the attitude that change is good. When we first started practice on Oct. 12, the kids were so excited they were nearly jumping out of the gym. This team needs to score more points than last season. We need to recognize when shots are good and when they could be better. I think if this team comes out and gives it their all in practice every day, then they will be happy with the end result. It's a new system so it is going to take some time to reach the point I would like to be at. We just need to take one day at a time and build on what is taught at each practice. It is all about the fundamentals. You can throw any offense out there, you can throw any defense out there; the key is how well you can execute. This is a very good defensive team. My goal is to make them just as hungry on offense as they are on defense. I need them to believe in themselves like I believe in them. We have to expect to win. For me, finding a way to win is much more exciting than accepting a loss. These kids are very competitive and will do what it takes to win ball games."
M&W: What is the Marnie Dacko style?
Dacko: "I want to run; I want to press; I want to be aggressive and make things happen. With all that said, we need to handle the ball and not turn it over. My teams at Cornell were always near the top of the Ivy League in assists and last in turnovers. I want an exciting brand of basketball that is going to put people back in the stands. It is a game played under the rim, but filled with teamwork. I like to pass the ball around and work for the best possible shot.
M&W: In the first 22 games last year, UMass went 6-12 and averaged just 55.2 points per game. Then, the Minutewomen opened it up near the end of the season, winning six of their final eight games, averaging 63.9 points per contest. Do you believe this kind of an up-tempo game can work with this team?
Dacko: "There are some fillies on this team; they can run. We have to run with a purpose, however. You can't just run and gun and give the ball right back to the other team. If we run with a purpose and finish at the other end, then it will work. We need to recognize when we have a break and when to pull it out and move the ball around. The other piece is that we can be a force on the boards. When we get our hands on the ball on the defensive end, we need to run down the floor, fill the lane and get to the free throw line. We need to convert on our opponent's mistakes. From day one, I could see that these kids are incredibly excited. This is a team who I believe we can win with. I couldn't ask them to compete any harder in practice. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain this season. I want to raise the bar here and establish ourselves as a force in the A-10. Nobody on this team has won a division championship here and that is the challenge. We need to get there by doing all the little things right."
M&W: How do you approach inheriting a team with seven seniors, no true freshman and having to put off the rebuilding process?
Dacko: "We really lost two or three years in the rebuilding process. When we got out here in April, there had been no prior recruiting done to my knowledge. We were, in essence, 'cold calling', people to come here, but in order for us to seal the deal with these kids, we had to have been out recruiting them for the last two or three years so we are behind in that process. For me, it is a situation of taking our time and identifying the right kids both athletically and academically for this style. I am not going to just go out and get as many junior college players as I can because that is a quick fix and not a long-term solution. I think a mesh of one junior college transfer and five freshmen will be ideal. Seven seniors is a lot to lose, but it is not as scary knowing that there are no true freshmen on the team, We will probably take some hits along the way a year or two down the road, but in the long run it is going to pay-off."
M&W: Why did you decide to apply for the head coaching position at UMass?
Dacko: "I've always considered UMass as a school which I would like to work at. Coming in now, I see just how much the University has to offer a student-athlete, both academically and athletically. When I interviewed here in the spring it was nice to see all of the students outside enjoying campus life. There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm in the athletic department all the way up to the athletic director and chancellor. When I first looked at this place and saw the Mullins Center I immediately thought, 'what an incredible facility for a young woman to play in.' The administrators' willingness to really put it on the line and say we want a winner gives a coach a lot of goals to strive for. I want to bring the excitement and electricity back to the Mullins Center.
M&W: When you go out recruiting, how do you sell the University and your program?
Dacko: "Academics are number one in my book; then comes basketball. I think that this University is diverse enough for kids to get involved in many things. I sell the balance between academics, athletics and taking in everything else that the community has to offer. I sell the total environment that we are getting here and what a great school it is. The Mullins Center goes without question. We have one of the finest facilities in the East. I just give the prospective recruit the image of how unbelievable it could be sold out. I sell the other programs here and the belief of being A-10 champions and returning to the NCAA Tournament. With seven seniors leaving, I have the ability to sell the fact that you can come in and make an impact. Finally, I sell my staff, I am very fortunate to be blessed with an outstanding staff who share my belief that UMass has the ingredients necessary to become a perennial power."
M&W: Last year, they ended on a very positive note; winning six of its last eight games and losing a heart-breaker in overtime of the A-10 semifinal. With the A-10 Tournament shifting to the Ryan Center on Rhode Island's campus and the prospects of hosting the title game, do you believe this year's team has the capability to reach the next level?
Dacko: "I get goosebumps thinking about getting just about everyone back. It would be a dream come true for these seniors to end their collegiate careers like that. The NCAA Tournament is what you play for in the game of basketball. We just need to play our game and be competitive."