With persistence and family atmosphere, Pitt rises

Updated: December 31, 2006, 11:44 AM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

It figures that one of the feel-good stories of this holiday season is about a family.

Agnus Berenato
David Butler II/US PresswireAgnus Berenato's Pitt Panthers are ranked for the first time since 1979 -- and off to the best start in school history.

It's an extended family, actually, which has come together to build something special at the convergence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. Think of it as a blue-collar basketball version of the Brady Bunch … except this Berenato Bunch is hipper, better dressed and more athletic.

Coach Agnus Berenato has the Pittsburgh Panthers off to their best start in school history, with a sparkling record and more than just visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. For the first time in decades, a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament don't seem so far out of reach.

Until a week ago, before the Pitt men suffered their first loss of the season, Pitt and UConn were the only schools in the country with unbeaten men's and women's teams. In a sports-crazy place like Pittsburgh, the combination of the Panthers' success makes for some wild times around town.

"We used to be able to walk around here as relative unknowns," said Berenato, who won six games her first season but notched 22 victories in 2006, her third season. "Well, I get a phone call from Shea Ralph the other day. She's one of our assistants, who played at UConn with all the craziness of the fans there. Shea's trying to work out at a fitness center here and she's getting all excited on the phone. She says she can't even finish her workout because all kinds of people are interrupting her to talk about Pitt basketball. That's never happened here before."

It's happening now.

It's happening because Berenato has created a family atmosphere that her team and the town embrace. The mother of five is working nine to five to provide for the Panthers. Pitt has overcome apathy, injuries and a tradition of mediocrity to ascend into the Top 25 in the country for the first time since 1979, almost a decade before any of the current team members were even born.

Center Marcedes Walker, a 6-foot-3 junior, is the prize pupil and the "big sister" of the Pitt basketball team. Under the tutelage of the coaching staff, Walker has developed into an All-America candidate.

"My role is to lead the younger kids," said Walker, who is on the preseason list of 50 candidates for the Naismith, which is awarded to the national player of the year. "The coaches have helped mold my game and they keep me working hard. It's my turn to pass that on to everybody else. We start three sophomores and a freshman point guard."

That Pitt starts freshman Jania Sims at the point makes the Panthers' unbeaten streak to start the season even more remarkable. In November, senior Mallorie Winn saw her season, and perhaps career at Pittsburgh, come to an end due to a knee injury suffered in practice. (She's petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.) It was a potentially devastating blow to the team, but the strong bonds created on and off the court helped hold Pitt together.

"When Winn went down, there was a tremendous stillness in the gym," remembered Berenato. "You could see the fear on the faces of the other players. The coaches explained to everybody, 'Hey, we have to combat this.' That's how a team works, that's how this family works. We don't stop when somebody goes down, we each do a little bit more."

Berenato laid out the plan for her players right there on the court just moments after the injury. She told her team everybody had to score 1½ more points per game to replace Winn's points. She promised them that the coaching staff would "score" eight more points per game by scouring more game film and scouting opponents even more thoroughly.

Mercedes Walker
AP Photo/Andrew RushMarcedes Walker ranks in the top 15 in the Big East in scoring and rebounding.

She then asked the Panthers if they could come up with four more assists. All heads nodded. All the players agreed they could do it. Their goals would not change. They would still work toward getting better every day and getting to the NCAA Tournament.

For her part, Winn has helped the team as best she can. She played for Berenato at Georgia Tech before transferring to Pitt to follow her coach. She wasn't going to let the injury stop her from contributing.

"Mal has been great working with our freshman," said Berenato, who had planned to use Sims as the backup this season. "Mal is constantly talking to [Sims]. She's at practice every day using her voice and her heart, only her leg has changed. We need her knowledge to win."

With Winn's help, Sims has been impressive. She has not been intimidated by her expanding role and is helping Pitt with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Sophomore shooting guard Shavonte Zellous has emerged as a surprising scoring option, filling the void of Winn's departure. Zellous' confidence is through the roof – she sets new career highs for scoring nearly every time she steps on the floor. Her average of 20 points per game is triple what she averaged last season and is currently tops in the Big East.

It has been a remarkable rise for a Pitt program that was floundering before Berenato arrived four years ago, walking away from her job at Georgia Tech. After 15 years in Atlanta, she says, it was time to move on. And it was time to move closer to home and her roots in the Northeast.

"I had no expectations when I interviewed at Pitt," Berenato said. "But they asked me to come talk to them. And they invited my husband, Jack, to come as well. That was huge to me, that they wanted to include my family in the process. They didn't just want a coach, they wanted someone to build a program and that really appealed to me."

It has been a perfect fit for the school and the coach. Berenato is, above all else, a connector. She brings people together. She is an eternal optimist with an engaging personality. There are no strangers in her world, only friends she has not met yet.

When she first arrived on the job, Berenato had to sell the community on her vision. She spent her free time talking to Rotary clubs and Girl Scout troops and student groups. Her conversations were rapid-fire and high-energy. When she delivered her message of family and hard work to the folks in sports-loving Pittsburgh, she was preaching to the choir. Berenato became the pied piper of Pitt basketball and she brought the campus and the city into her extended family.

That's also how Berenato attracts recruits – it's all about family. One of her favorite sayings is, "Either you're in or you're out." And now, with the buzz building at Pitt, a lot of people want in.

"There wasn't much going on at Pitt when I was coming out of high school," admitted Walker. "But they had Coach and she had a plan. I committed because this was a team on the rise with other players willing to change the program. We all wanted to play right away and get better."

Shavonte Zellous
AP Photo/Andrew RushShavonte Zellous is Pitt's main scoring threat, averaging about 20 points per game.

Berenato admits it was a tough sell, but she and her staff never wavered.

"We turned a potential negative into a positive," Berenato said. "We sold the fact that 'Hey, you can come here and write history. We've got no banners, we've got no rings. Help us get some.' "

The staff immediately targeted student-athletes who were willing to think differently than the typical teenage girl. The challenge to recruits was this: Don't just fit in, don't just follow. Step out in front.

"Here at Pitt, you can stand out," Berenato told her team. "Women don't always have the confidence to be an impact player, they tend to want to be role players. We told them that wasn't good enough. We want you to have an impact on the court and in life."

Walker is having just such an impact and Pitt is reaping the benefits.

"Last year we had such a good attitude," said Walker, who leads a team with no senior starters. "We knew it was going to be a process and we were psyched to get 22 wins. This year is so exciting with lots of younger kids who love the game and leave it all on the court. We didn't expect to be 10-0, so this has been a lot of fun."

Just to hear that Walker is having fun speaks to the impact that Berenato and Pitt basketball have had on the junior's life. She lived through some tough times growing up in Philadelphia, where she discovered her love for the game on the Philly asphalt but also learned some hard lessons about family ties. And though Walker has found refuge in Western Pennsylvania, reality still reaches her at times.

As a freshman, Walker and Berenato had to return to Philadelphia for the funeral of one of Marcedes' brothers, who was shot and killed. Another brother was shot and paralyzed before she went to college. And now, Walker has taken over the responsibility for the well-being of her younger siblings – including a sister who plays high school basketball – and a grandmother still at home.

"Pitt has given me the opportunity to make a difference for my family," Walker said. "They have the resources to help me and the coaches have made me a stronger person and a better leader. I wanted to get out of Philly and I want to help my family out."

Walker certainly has the potential to play in the WNBA in a couple of years. Beyond that she looks forward to a career in criminal justice. In the meantime, she's taking very good care of her Pitt family.

"She really believes she will make a difference," said Berenato, who brought Walker to town as a part of her first recruiting class at Pitt. "Not just in the WNBA but beyond that she can have an impact on society. She's really blossomed into a wonderful student-athlete and young lady.

"She used to be a follower who didn't want to be the go-to person. Now she's a leader who tells her teammates to climb on her back. She carries a big load for us and the players are now taking ownership of the program."

Berenato gladly hands over the reins, as if the Pitt program is another child starting to grow up.

Before heading to a tournament in Mexico earlier this week, Berenato told Walker she could pick the location and menu for a team holiday meal. Walker eschewed all the fine dining establishments in the Steel City and picked some home cooking at the Berenato house.

"I told her to pick any spot in town and she just asked if we could all come over to my house," said Berenato, who can outcook any chef the Food Network dares put up against her in the kitchen. "She says it's home, [that] sitting in the living room with her teammates and my kids is better than any restaurant."

The Berenato household is more than just a home. It's also a think tank, a church and a cafeteria. Anyone is welcome to stop by and experience the chaos up close. National broadcaster Debbie Antonelli has covered Berenato's teams for over a decade and once got an invitation.

"I sat in the kitchen and just watched the family operate," said Antonelli, who herself has three children. "Everyone has chores to do, there is constant traffic through the kitchen and there is always a project under construction. With that many people, her kids and her team all learn that everyone has to pitch in, no job is too big or too small and everyone's job is important. I love the way she manages her family and her basketball family."

Berenato's immediate family includes children Theresa, Andrew, Joey, Clare and Chrissie, ranging in age from 24 to 13. They'll all be home for Christmas and they all have the gift of gab, just like their mother. They recently helped Agnes and Jack celebrate their wedding anniversary. Father Brad Whistle married the couple 25 years ago and he was back to celebrate their anniversary mass at the Berenato house.

The Pitt basketball family also includes the men's team. The coaching staff and players have a great camaraderie with the men, led by coach Jamie Dixon, who was named head coach around the same time Berenato took the women's job.

"The other night after we beat Ohio, the players were on the bus and pulling up the men's score on their [PDAs]," said Berenato. "The men were in a nail-biter with Buffalo and we were all on the bus downloading the play-by-play and trying to send them positive energy." (The men pulled out the win to match the women's 10-0 start.)

The Pitt basketball family faces its biggest challenge of the season in the coming days. The women tangle with Duke on Dec. 21 and then open Big East play in early January at Rutgers. The Pitt men travel to Oklahoma State during the holidays.

Bring it on, say the Panthers. It has been a long time since Pitt was playing meaningful games with the whole town, and now the whole country taking notice.

"Watch out," Walker said. "We're coming."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.