Shooting for March Madness
KSU basketball coaches share common goals, priorities
KENNESAW, Ga. (Mar 20, 2017) — Al Skinner and Agnus Berenato are no strangers to March Madness. Skinner coached Rhode Island and Boston College to the NCAA Tournament, while Berenato guided Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh to the Big Dance.
But while college basketball fans across the country are glued to the TV this time of year, Skinner and Berenato’s enthusiasm for this year’s tournament is a bit tempered. The NCAA Tournament won’t be the same for them until the Kennesaw State men’s and women’s teams are part of the field – the sooner, the better.
“I hate this time of year right now because we’re not participating,” Skinner said. “I can’t really watch the games. I’m not enjoying this at all.”
Berenato sent a message – literally – to KSU Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams while she was attending the Atlantic 10 Conference men’s basketball championship game in Pittsburgh on March 12. She snapped a photo of the postgame celebration and sent it to Williams.
“I wrote to him, ‘In a couple years, this is going to be us,’” Berenato said. “What we think about is winning the conference and going to the Big Dance. If you dream it, you can achieve it.”
Skinner, in his second season coaching the Owls, and Berenato, in her first year at Kennesaw State, each took strides toward accomplishing that goal.
The women’s team enjoyed a season of firsts, including a top-four finish in the Atlantic Sun Conference to earn the first ASUN Tournament home game in the program’s history – which the Owls won 62-60 over New Jersey Institute of Technology. Two players earned ASUN honors, as Carlotta Gianolla unanimously was voted as the Freshman of the Year and Deandrea Sawyers was selected second team all-conference.
The men’s team also advanced to the ASUN Tournament semifinals en route to 14 wins, Kennesaw State’s highest total since joining Division I. Kendrick Ray became the first Kennesaw State men’s basketball player ever to be named ASUN first team all-conference, Aubrey Williams earned second team all-conference honors and James Scott was named to the all-freshmen team.
“We did have a successful year. Even more than the win total, we were competitive every game,” Skinner said. “That’s the first step – having an expectation that we’re going to be competitive and we’re going to have a chance to win. That is changing the mindset and getting my players to believe in themselves.”
Every day is Christmas
Berenato is excited about the possibilities for Kennesaw State basketball. She views her opportunity to be part of it as a gift, a fitting outlook for someone who keeps a Christmas tree up year-round in her house.
“I think every day is a gift. Every day is Christmas,” she said. “I get the opportunity to influence 18- to 23-year-old student-athletes. I’m doing what I love.”
Though the two coaches have different personalities – Berenato’s a bit more exuberant and outgoing than Skinner’s – they have similar approaches to coaching. They agree that being an effective leader begins simply with being genuine.
“You just have to be true to yourself and who your personality is,” Skinner said. “If you’re trying to be something you’re not, then players will see that. It’s the sincerity that makes a good coach, in a sense that players not only believe you, but are willing to follow you.”
“I believe that we all have to make a difference and impact someone every day,” Berenato said. “If we don’t, we failed someone for that day.”
Berenato considers herself, first and foremost, an educator. Whether in the midst of a practice session or in a timeout during a game, Berenato teachers her players how the situation at hand relates to other challenges or opportunities they could face in their personal and professional lives.
More so than the strides they have made on the court, Berenato is proud of her players’ accomplishments in the classroom. Chloe Branch and Clara Young were named to the ASUN all-academic team, marking the first time in program history that two players earned that honor in the same year. In addition, the team posted a composite 3.53 grade point average during fall semester, led by four players with 4.0 GPAs.
“Academically, our student-athletes were a marvel,” Berenato said. “Academics is the No. 1 priority; it’s why I’m here as an educator. The big picture is that we all truly are invested in the total person – academically, athletically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. That’s what makes or breaks a winner and a champion.”
While applying similar principles with his team, Skinner acknowledges that different motivational tactics work for different players. Within that framework, though, the players must be on the same page on what needs to be done for the team to succeed.
“We literally are taking a step at a time, but I truly believe that we’re a little ahead of schedule,” he said. “It’s clear that we’re getting some talent, we’re getting some recognition, we’re getting some wins – we just need more of them. I think we’ll continue to build on what we’ve accomplished, and I think our guys are starting to feel like there’s no reason we can’t win in this league.”
Skinner wants the Owls not just to experience success, but to sustain it. He points to his tenure at Boston College, which began with three losing seasons but ended with eight postseason trips in 10 years.
“I’m looking long-term. Once we get really good, I want to remain good,” Skinner said. “When they talk about the ASUN, they’re going to talk about Kennesaw State.”
The approach taken by Skinner and Berenato has worked. In their combined 54 seasons of head coaching, they have accumulated 854 wins and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances.
“I say to Al all the time, ‘Coach, you and I are the oldest people in the building.’ He says, ‘The most experienced,’” Berenato said with her familiar smile. “We both have the same passionate desire to excel on and off the court.”
— Paul Floeckher
Photos by David Caselli
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.