by Tom Pedulla –
To many candidates, the opportunity to coach the Sleepy Hollow varsity girls’ basketball team may not have seemed appealing. The program has lacked stability due to a number of coaching changes, and wins have been few.
Tony Pignataro familiarized himself with that daunting background, which included last season’s 4-16 record, and decided it was “the perfect team for me.” Although he had never coached girls in his 15-year career, he gladly accepted an offer to take over the program shortly before practices began.
“I always like to take the underdog team. I like to rebuild,” said Pignataro, 53. “I like the satisfaction of people seeing what they can really do.”
The new coach made a winning debut, but there is the realization that there will be plenty of bumps in the road. Building a winning culture is fraught with challenges. With only three seniors, the team lacks experience.
“The discipline needed to win a game has to be learned,” the new coach said. “They’re getting there.”
The game means a great deal to Pignataro. He lives in Greenwich, Conn., and oversees approximately 1,000 players in grades kindergarten through 12 as president of the Greenwich Basketball Association. Students at Sleepy Hollow find his practices are long – but productive.
“We’ll have practice for a while,” said Emily Buzaid, “but I think that’s a good thing for us because we’re learning a lot and improving a ton.”
Buzaid is one of six freshmen. Their enthusiastic presence offers encouragement.
“Definitely, they are the hope for the future. They have the right temperament, the right personality,” Pignataro said. “They are here for every practice. I’m really happy with that.”
Alexa Charles, a sophomore who transferred from Alexander Hamilton High School in nearby Elmsford, is another positive addition to a team that needed change. She remains upbeat despite the program’s bleak past.
“Before the basketball season even started, I’ve been hearing that the basketball team is really bad,” Charles said. “But that was from other people’s perspective. Me playing with them now, the team isn’t bad at all.”
Charles said of lengthy practices, “I do like them because they’re not just helping me, but everyone here become a better player.”
Pignataro’s passion for basketball is contagious. “I like him a lot. He’s really into it. I think that’s a good thing for us. That’s what we need,” Buzaid said. “I think we’re improving our skill set along with our communication on the court.”
After so many years of coaching boys, Pignataro finds the move to girls to be a dramatic but welcome change.
“To be honest with you, I will never go back to coaching boys again,” he said. “It’s actually very rewarding. I think the learning curve has definitely been much steeper than boys.”
He also is learning that the makeup of the players is not what he is accustomed to. “I think the emotions are the same,” he said. “The way they express it is very different.”
While the new coach can only focus on the talent in front of him, Buzaid expressed concern that much younger girls in the community are not showing an interest by participating in youth basketball programs. Perennially strong high school programs benefit from a steady influx of talent.
“I’m worried about what comes after us,” Buzaid said. “But I’m excited about the future of us growing up.”
Players might do well to heed a sign on the gym door that reads, “I am not telling you it is going to be easy. I am telling you it is going to be worth it.”