PITTSBURGH — It was an ordinary summer day when Vanessa Abel received the phone call that she had long been hoping for, but the caller, Duquesne women’s basketball coach Dan Burt, provided a question which needed an answer.
“Are you ready to come home?” he asked.
Abel is a Scottsdale, Pa. native that played for Duquesne through the 2012-13 season and made it a career goal to return to her alma mater as a coach. That familiarity, in addition. to previous coaching stops at Saint Francis (PA) and Western Michigan helped secure the position and make her answer to Burt’s question an easy one.
“It feels surreal that I am actually going to be back on the sidelines at Duquesne University,” Abel said. “With that being said, I appreciate the love, texts, the calls from all of the people in my circle, but my biggest thing is I don’t want to make this about me, I want make this about our program and what it stands for. I think it emphasizes the family atmosphere and aspect that Duquesne preached. We truly are a family and it should be an eye opener that you don’t just come here for four years and move on. Coach Burt has done a fantastic job of creating this program, you get to play on a big stage at Duquesne. We play at a very high level, so you get everything in one package.”
Burt’s offer brought a range of emotions from being speechless to tears both of joy and fear.
Abel felt validated that she trusted her process while guessing that she did everything right, using the opportunities at her two previous positions to grow both as a person and a coach.
To Abel, there is a sense of pride and an expectation to return to where you previously played while finding different ways to contribute. Still that worry is though, though she welcomes it.
“There are different types of fear,” she said. “I want to make sure I am giving my all to Duquesne but there is always that little fear of letting them down. It is a good fear, it keeps me on my toes. If there is no fear, then I’m content and the minute I am content, that’s not good, because there’s always room for growth and improvement. I think Duquesne is going to get everything out of me and will challenge me to be an even better coach, taking my game to the next level.”
Abel’s time as a player at Duquesne came when the family concept was just starting and this, she explained is why the program has been able to achieve success. It was the mentality of everyone coming together and truly buying into what a head coach says, which in this case is Burt.
When she was hired, Abel received texts from all of her former teammates, some of whom she has communicated with daily, while others were the first conversation in years. Still these dialogues picked right up where they left off.
Since leaving Duquesne, Abel always felt welcome to come back and appreciated that not only did the team know her name, but who she was and what she was doing in life, which she credits to Burt who has taken the family tradition to the next level.
It is clear that Abel’s love has never left Duquesne, where she scored 843 points over four years, even when she coached against the Dukes as a member of Saint Francis’s coaching staff during the 2017-18 season.
After that game, Burt stated that at some point he hoped Abel would again grace Duquesne’s bench, this time as a coach.
Less than two years later, that exact scenario occurred.
“Duquesne basketball as a player meant everything to me,” said Abel. “They gave me an opportunity after I transferred from West Virginia not knowing what my next direction in life was. They took a chance on me and rolled with it. It means pride, passion, it’s just a different type of program that you want to be a part of. Going into it now in a different role, it’s the same thing.”
Burt has explained to Abel that her primary roles will be player development while also playing a key role in recruiting as she replaces departed assistant Rachel Wojdowski, who is pursuing a career outside of basketball. Thats a role that Abel performed in at both Saint Francis and Western Michigan.
Abel will be looking to bring the best out of Duquesne’s student-athletes both on and off the court she has already started recruiting efforts, visiting Washington D.C. from July 21-23 for the USJN 17U National Championship.
While Abel has an understanding of her role and the team in general, she plans on learning from her fellow assistant coaches Cherie Lea and Matt Schmidt.
“As a leader in a different role other than a player, it is about holding our players accountable to meet our program’s expectations on and off the court,” Abel stated. “It is my responsibility to bring my passion and energy every day and hope that it becomes contagious and carries over.”
Driving back from her recruiting trip, Abel expressed thanks to Western Michigan coach Shane Clipfell for being so caring and for putting her in a position to getting the Duquesne position, while also appreciating Burt’s mentorship, always being by her side and trust in returning to a program she so dearly loves.
Though it is a ways away, Abel is looking forward to experience another range of emotions during Duquesne’s first home game which serves as an opportunity to see many familiar faces, while also providing a full-circle moment.
“I think it’s going to be emotional, anyone in this position, you get emotional,” said Abel. “It’s just so surreal right now that this is happening and I am so fortunate that Dan Burt trusts me and is giving me this opportunity. I know I’m going to want to lace up and compete again in a Duquesne uniform.”
With Abel a Duke once again, her vision for this team is clear. There is work to be done and a clear objective in mind.
“Since I got into coaching, my number one goal was to get back to Duquesne because I had one thing on my mind which I couldn’t do as a player which was to win an A-10 championship,” she said. “We’re knocking on the door, but now it’s time to bust through that door and bring one home for the city and for our program.”