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While in high school, a teen basketball star thought she’d pursue a calling in religion. Now, Agnus Berenato is coaching the Pitt women’s basketball team, where she’s making champions of her players and believers among a growing crowd of fans.

Courting Miracles

Jennifer Bails

Agnus Berenato (Harry Giglio photo)

Two dozen Catholic schoolgirls—and a priest or two—pile into Agnus Berenato’s living room, competing for space with plastic snowmen, Santa Claus figurines, and a menagerie of other holiday decorations.
Never mind that it is almost the end of January. Who has time to take down a Christmas tree when there are miracles left unfinished?

Yet somehow Berenato, who is head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Pittsburgh, finds a couple of hours to prepare a full-course pasta-and-chicken dinner so that her daughter’s high school basketball team can fuel up for its big game tonight.

“Hands up!” she bellows in her South Jersey accent to daughter Clare and her teammates, calling the girls into the foyer before they leave.

“All right now, one, two, three, kick their butts!”

A chorus of high-pitched giggles erupts from the huddle, where 5-foot-11 Berenato towers overhead.

“Play hard, play smart, play together!” she shouts.

Her high-voltage energy seems almost superhuman, especially considering that the Pitt team’s bus didn’t chug into Oakland until 3 a.m. after a hard-fought 72-63 win at Villanova. The Big East victory extended the Pitt women’s basketball winning streak to 11 games.

Once she arrived home, Coach Berenato stayed awake for another two hours to review film of the Panthers’ next opponent—a hot-shooting Rutgers squad ranked fourth in the nation. At 5:30 a.m. she pulled her eyes away from the Scarlet Knights’ defense long enough to glance bleary-eyed at the clock.

Sputtering along on fumes of adrenaline, Berenato stopped resisting the logic that told her to rest. She forced herself to sleep. But she popped out of bed before her 8 a.m. alarm sounded to cook a family-style meal for the pack of hungry teenage girls—a meal complete with sweet, doughy chocolate chip cookies that she describes as “really big time.”

“Really big time” could also describe what Berenato has accomplished in the past five years with the Pitt women’s basketball program. It is a feel-good transformation that the whole sports-crazy town of Pittsburgh is beginning to embrace—and a testament to the power of her personality and propensity to dream.

Under Berenato’s leadership, Pitt racked up the most wins in team history last year with a 24-9 record and earned a first-time berth in the NCAA tournament, where the Lady Panthers beat James Madison University in the first round. The team ascended into the Top 25 in the nation for the first time since 1979, climbing as high as No. 14 in the Associated Press poll after an 11-0 run in the 2007-2008 season. Senior All-America candidate Marcedes Walker and junior point guard Shavonte Zellous are standout players, among the finest in the Big East. This season, the team pulled off its biggest marvel yet, beating Baylor and advancing to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 Tournament for the first time in Pitt women’s basketball history.

“What she’s done in a short time is nothing short of a miracle,” says Paul Zeise, a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who has covered Pitt women’s basketball for almost a decade.

“Either you’re in or you’re out,” Berenato likes to say. And a lot of people now want in. All regular-season Panther games are being broadcast on the radio, and 16 were televised this year. It’s not unusual to fill the lower bowl of the Petersen Events Center for important games. And Pitt Senior Associate Athletic Director Carol Sprague says three excited fans recently approached her, individually, on the street in one day to talk women’s basketball—a first in her 34 years at the University.

“Agnus Berenato is not afraid to think big, and she’s not afraid to say what she is thinking,” Sprague says.

Indeed, Berenato makes no secret of her ambition in Pittsburgh despite the pressure it builds. “I want to win a national championship,” she says, without blinking. “But to win a national championship, you have to be good, and you have to be lucky, and I really believe that luck is self-created.”

Berenato has done everything in her power to create her own luck.

When she first arrived at Pitt in March 2003, the team had seven losing seasons in its past eight and no chance to recruit Blue Chip prospects. Berenato doesn’t use the Internet—no time to waste—but a quick Google search would have shown her that the women’s basketball team was among the NCAA’s worst major Division 1 programs, Zeise says.
“How bad could they be?” Berenato recalls thinking.

With some convincing from Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, encouragement from her husband, Jack, and a healthy measure of blind faith, Berenato left behind 15 successful years as head coach at Georgia Tech to take over a Pitt team badly in need of revival.

“They needed someone to help them heal,” says Berenato, 51, about the team’s persistent losing streak. “Anyone can do a three-man weave or a press. I mean, of course the kids have to make jump shots, but really, this is about healing the women’s basketball team with the athletic department, with the school, and with the community. I felt like I was good at that.”

A healer is what Berenato first set out to become—she just never expected to work some of her biggest miracles in the church of basketball.

Agnus Berenato was one of 10 children—six girls and four boys—born to Theresa and Peter McGlade in the hardscrabble Irish-Catholic town of Gloucester City, N.J., about 10 miles outside Philadelphia.

To keep his children occupied and honest, Berenato’s father laid down a slab of concrete with a basketball hoop next to the family’s house. The court was only big enough for 3-on-3, but that didn’t stop the neighborhood kids from waiting in line to go for the hoop. Play ball they did. “I was always on a team with my sisters. We were good, and we won a lot,” Berenato says. “We played because it was what you were supposed to do.”

Tough times grew even tougher after Berenato’s father died when she was in the seventh grade, leaving behind no insurance money or pension. Her mother went to work selling real estate, and Berenato took on jobs at an ice cream parlor and textile factory to earn tuition for Gloucester Catholic High School.

Hard work also became one of Berenato’s greatest assets as a basketball player. She led her high school team to three consecutive state championships and then played with a French team for one year until Title IX took effect, giving women the same opportunity as men to play college sports.

Berenato accepted one of the first full scholarships to play women’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. Then, after one season, she transferred to Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland to focus more intently on her religious studies. “I never wanted to be a coach,” she says. “I wanted to be in campus ministry.”

A summer job as a traveling saleswoman hawking bibles door-to-door paid her tuition until she received a scholarship to play for Mount St. Mary’s. The school’s head coach Fred Carter also was an ESPN analyst and former NBA star. Each week, on his way to call the Philadelphia 76ers games for TV, Carter would drive Berenato home to Gloucester so she could visit with her mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Freddie Carter was such a mentor to me, and he gave me a love of the game,” she says. He also encouraged Berenato to take a job after graduation as a high school religion teacher—and a basketball coach. That’s where she discovered she belonged back on the court instead of in the classroom.

Berenato spent four years as head women’s basketball coach at New Jersey’s Rider University, where she compiled a 60-55 record. Then, in a move to Georgia Tech, she racked up more than 200 wins and gained a national reputation.

Between her stints at Rider and Georgia Tech, she took a year off from coaching to help her mother cope with advanced-stage cancer, but she hasn’t stopped to exhale since her mother’s death in 1988. Berenato didn’t even take maternity leave after the birth of her five children—Theresa Marie, 24; Andrew, 22; Joey, 19; Clare, 17; and Christina, 14. She missed one game on the day Theresa Marie was born, but Berenato was released from the hospital on a Saturday morning and stunned her assistant coaches by showing up for an afternoon match-up.

It’s a cold, bright morning in late January, and Berenato is still moving full-speed ahead. Carrying a tube of pink lipstick and a hairbrush, she dashes on 2.5-inch heels into the McCarl Panthers Hall of Champions in the Petersen Events Center to tape her weekly coach’s show for cable TV. She settles comfortably into her chair, smoothing down her short, blond hair and adjusting her strand of pearls.

The electricity she radiates is almost palpable. Berenato is riding high after a near-record crowd of 8,509 watched her team defeat Louisville the night before—still 4,000 shy of a full house, but not a shabby turnout for a program clambering its way back into the consciousness of Pittsburgh’s fervent fans. “How awesome was this past week!” Berenato says, beaming at the video camera.

Yet when she enters the team room an hour later to hear assistant coach Caroline McCombs give the scout report, the jewelry and smile come off, and it’s time for business. In fewer than 48 hours, her players must figure out how to overcome Villanova’s game play.

The team moves into the gym for afternoon practice, which begins at center court with each player standing in a huddle, toe touching toe. “We have to do everything we can right now to get better and better and better,” Berenato says, her voice echoing loudly in the empty gym. “And you aren’t going to get better in a game. Where you are going to get better is right here in practice.”

Then come two tough hours of five-woman weaves, free throws, and guard/post exercises, followed by suicide sprints. Berenato runs practice with military-like precision, barking rapid-fire commands from the sidelines while taking notes on every player’s performance and occasionally charging into the center of the team’s drills wielding a foam-padded stick to block jump shots.

She credits much of her team’s success to her staff—Jeff Williams, Shea Ralph, and Caroline McCombs—who offer a powerhouse combination of top recruiting, tough practice, and superb scout preparation. Associate head coach Williams is considered among the best recruiters in the business, and assistant coach Ralph was captain of the 2000 national championship team at the University of Connecticut, so she knows firsthand what it takes to win the Big Dance.

All four have labored doggedly to put Pitt women’s basketball into the national spotlight. Unwilling to settle, they know it is going to take a lot more hard work to transform the program into a juggernaut that can compete against perennial champions like Connecticut and Tennessee.

“You hear the phrase ‘tireless workers’—that’s what they are,” says Zeise, the Post-Gazette sports writer. “They really have done everything in their power to breathe some life into the program and generate excitement about it in the community.”

Putting her Bible-selling experience to good use, Berenato never turns down a speaking engagement, whether the invitation comes from an influential group of alumni or the neighborhood Kiwanis club. She and her staff host weekend basketball clinics for local students, make overnight trips to recruit top players from around the country, and watch video footage late into the night to study their rivals.

Signing Marcedes Walker in 2004—a 6-foot-3 marquee center likely bound for the Women’s National Basketball Association—was a huge coup for the program, which has built its winning teams around her explosive power and skill. “I really believed in Coach B,” says Walker, explaining why she chose Pitt. “Her heart is huge. It is the size of California. She can holler at you, but you still love her.”

Senior point guard Mallorie Winn, who followed Berenato from Georgia Tech, agrees. “I could tell from the moment I met her that she would care about me as a person, not just as a basketball player,” says Winn. “And there aren’t that many coaches still out there who do that.”

Ultimately, Berenato—who was honored in March as Pittsburgh’s Sportswoman of the Year by the Dapper Dan Charities—knows she won’t be remembered where it counts the most. “The X’s and O’s of a win-loss record are literally about five percent of what we do,” she says. “It is about so much more than that.” It’s about helping to transform young women into better athletes, better students, and better people, she says, adding: “You just hope that you can be for them what they need you to be. That’s all you can hope.”

That means making sure her players make their 9 a.m. classes, wide awake and dressed sharply, even though they didn’t get home until 2 a.m. from a game; and bringing them homemade apple pies to help them make it through study hall.

Or traveling to inner-city Philadelphia with Walker for the funeral of one of her brothers. Or helping Sophronia Sallard at a Syracuse hospital this fall when the sophomore point guard lost her mother to cancer, and then inviting Sallard and her siblings to join the Berenatos for Thanksgiving. The list goes on and on.

“Agnus Berenato maintained throughout the interview process that basketball isn’t who she is—it is what she does,” says Sprague. “She is first a sister and a wife and a mother.”

Hers is an extended family that knows no boundaries. Anyone is invited to the Berenato table for a family dinner. Rest assured, there will be candles, cloth napkins, and platters piled with hot food. But you might wait until 10 p.m. or later to eat. Remember: There are still recruiting trips to organize, reporters to call back, practices to plan. And don’t forget next week’s talk for the Girl Scouts.

“Plan your work and work your plan,” Berenato says. “That’s what my mother said, and she said it all the time. If you have a vision, you can do it.”

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