McCANDLESS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For anyone who meets Agnus Berenato for the first time, two things become extremely clear: she loves to educate and her stories often are upbeat and leave you laughing, something which held very true in the days leading up to Friday’s non-conference game with Duquesne.
A homecoming for four Kennesaw State players (Breanna Hoover, Amani Johnson, Gabi Legister and Gillian Piccolino) as well as Berenato who remains in Pitt’s record book as its winningest women’s basketball coach had all of the team excited, yet outside of the quintet plus associate coach Khadija Head who was on Berenato’s Panther staffs, everyone had questions.
“I asked them what they were excited for and they said they were excited to see how they lived and I told them, ‘they lived in America, what are you talking about,’ Berenato said. “Then they asked, ‘well what do they eat?’ All of the Pittsburgh girls answered back, ‘perogies. We don’t need to make it sound like a foreign country. To me that was so exciting and that’s my job as an educator.”
This was Berenato at her best, and predictably the LaRoche University makeshift media room laughed in approval. From having a guest coach at each game to holding court with media following contests, Berenato has been true to herself in her 33-year head coaching career.
With that being said, it is safe to say it has not been all smiles and laughs for Berenato at Kennesaw State.
Last year, Berenato was diagnosed with breast cancer and battled, all while both refusing to be both a statistic and to be defined by it.
Instead, Berenato used this new platform to continue doing what she loves more than anything, educate.
The entire basketball community responded in a big way recording messages and Duquesne was one of the many teams that ended practice and shot a video as a team offering encouragement.
Sure enough, Berenato used her glass half-full attitude, defeated cancer and resumed coaching on the sidelines.
Kennesaw State opened this season winning three of its four games but then were challenged when its program made national headlines in a way no one desires.
The team’s leading scorer, Kamiyah Street, was charged in connection to a July 16 murder, one she admitted both presence and participation in. She has since been indefinitely suspended from the team and any of its activities.
Without mentioning the incident by name, Berenato mentioned how difficult that last month has been, but also how proud she is of her team for its collective response.
She admitted that this Kennesaw State team is still seeking an identity and even admitted her team is tired in many ways but has raised up and been extremely coachable.
“The last month for me I think I have done the best job as a leader, as an educator and as a mom,” Berenato said. “These are my kids and as a mom I took these Pittsburgh kids and kids from several different countries and said I wanted to protect them. Then we had a tragedy happen and I have to lift them up and I have to teach them. Life sucks sometimes, what are you going to do? The show goes on. Sometimes I have to put my ugly face on, but I wouldn’t want to be with any other team or staff in my whole coaching career.”
Duquesne coach Dan Burt has frequently been in Berenato’s corner as the two are friendly and even though he has been put through challenges with two starters being lost to season-ending injuries, the above circumstances really put things into perspective for him.
“I cannot ever fathom what Agnus has had to go through this season,” he said. “I can’t even understand the different emotions and feelings with her and her team’s situation.”
Under Berenato’s direction, the team has come together and played for each other. Friday night it was clear the love that Kennesaw State has for each other and it showed for all 40 minutes, a reflection of what the team thinks of its fourth-year coach.
Kennesaw State has moved on from the last month and Friday night got to bring its quartet of players home in a very much 50-50 crowd.
One of the four, sophomore guard Amani Johnson, who led all scorers with 21 points, admitted the contest felt more like a home game with each returning player receiving a warm ovation from the crowd.
“This game means a lot for both of us, for all of the Pittsburgh girls and all of our team in general,” said Johnson. “Every game we go and play our hearts out, but this game was special. It was a homecoming for us. For her to believe in us and recruit us all the way from up here and have the faith in us to bring us away from our family and for us to have the faith in her and love us and grow us as players. A lot of the fans could see how we improved from being high school players.”
Not to be outdone, Hoover scored 13 points, Piccolino had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds and Legister played 15 minutes recording two rebounds.
Berenato was extremely pleased that Burt and Duquesne assistant Matt Schmidt saw value in the game and agreed for it to happen.
Most coaches try their hardest to play games close to where their players live and over the summer, Kennesaw State spent its quadrennial foreign tour in Italy so senior forward Carlotta Gianolla could play close to home.
This game against Duquesne was unique not only because of the hometown ties, but because even though Kennesaw State had 12 days between games, the players had finals and did not start practicing until three days before tipoff, with the scout coming 24 hours later.
Kennesaw State led after each of the first three quarters, with its largest lead in the contest being 14 points before Duquesne came back to win 75-72.
The gameplan involved limiting Duquesne’s ability on its three point shots as Berenato felt her team could match twos but not threes.
In those first three quarters, Kennesaw State held Duquesne to a 2-for-16 clip from three-point range and all five starters reached a double-figure scoring total, though the team ultimately fell short.
“We felt really confident and we knew everything Duquesne did, I thought,” Berenato said. “We may not have always executed. The show goes on, and the actors in this play stepped up tonight. Life is too short, you have to give it your all. If you don’t come out and give it your best, you might as well stay home.”
Berenato has long been a believer of laughter being important medicine. Of course as a team you still want to win but, she views fun as an important part of the process.
This past month has not always been fun, but for 40 minutes, Kennesaw State battled together and though it came up short, Berenato enjoyed every minute.
“Duquesne won in the scoring column but let me tell you what, I made him (Burt) work his ass off to coach tonight,” said Berenato. “These ladies really believed and got each other. In 10 years my kids are not going to remember whether they won or lost. They’ll remember going to the Duquesne Incline last night. I don’t mean to simplify it but sometimes we make everything really hard. What’s important is family, friends and faith. We really wanted to have fun and I really had fun tonight. I know it probably looked like I was an idiot or crazy, but I worked my ass off. I had the best time.”