The St. Francis (Pa.) women’s basketball team rode a wave of momentum into the 2018-19 season. The Red Flash were coming off a Northeast Conference title and berth in the NCAA Tournament, and they had one of the nation’s best scorers, Jess Kovatch, returning.
The momentum quickly was halted by unforeseen setbacks.
Caitlyn Kroll, the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman last season, transferred. Senior Jill Falvey, a valuable reserve, was lost to a season-ending injury. And coach Joe Haigh stepped away from the program, citing personal reasons.
So for interim coach Susan Robinson Fruchtl, SFU’s athletic director, having a steadying senior presence like Plum grad Courtney Zezza was a boon.
“Having Courtney and Jess who have been there and done that … they’ve remained pretty calm,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “They have kind of fought the battles and know what it takes. I feel like they didn’t let (the adversity) affect them.”
For Zezza, the proof is in the numbers. She is averaging personal bests in points (8.5) and rebounds (5.4), has remained a force as a shot-blocker — her 2.76 blocks rank eighth in the nation — and her 39.8-percent shooting from 3-point range is up more than 10 percent from the previous two seasons.
“I think I have definitely improved,” said the 6-foot-4 Zezza, who is closing on the program’s all-time shot-blocking mark. “I’ve been in the gym a lot. My teammates have confidence in me, especially since I’ve been shooting outside more. They trust me and know where to find me.
“In high school, I might have taken one (3-pointer) in my whole career, and I think having that confidence outside the paint has really helped me grow as a player.”
Robinson Fruchtl didn’t make major changes, but Zezza and her teammates had to adapt to at least a few new strategies. The biggest change was on defense, where Robinson Fruchtl switched from Haigh’s frenetic, pressing style to more of a half-court scheme.
Offensively, the Red Flash (9-12, 6-3 NEC as of publication time) use a lot of motion to try to take advantage of inside-outside opportunities. This is where Zezza has proven to be most valuable with her ability to score from the paint or the perimeter.
“She has a good basketball brain,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “She’s usually in the right place on the court. She knows within the course of the offense where she is going to be open and reads things pretty well.
“I think she’s a very good teammate and a very good team player. She’s what being a teammate is all about.”
After enduring a three-game NEC losing streak in mid-January, the Red Flash worked themselves into a tie for second in the conference. While preseason favorite Robert Morris showed no signs of slowing down, Zezza said the NEC is anybody’s to win come March.
“Everybody is such great competition, and in this conference, anybody can win any game,” she said. “It just depends on how they’re playing that day.”
With her college days rapidly drawing to a close, Zezza has begun to think about her future, expressing a desire to play overseas once she hangs up her Red Flash uniform. As for her ideal basketball destination? Anywhere is fine with her.
“I’ve never left the country,” Zezza said, laughing. “I think it would be a good experience even if I do it for one year. I could at least say I did it.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at [email protected] or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.