Women’s basketball at CCSU hasn’t had many moments in the sun.
They have spent the majority of their Division I existence in the bowels of the Northeast Conference.
Much like the basketball program, head coach Beryl Piper finds herself sitting in the bowels of Kaiser Hall, out of sight and out of mind for much of the CCSU campus.
In a remarkable turn of events the CCSU women’s basketball program has burst from the NEC basement to contention in just one season. The Blue Devils have already tallied 16 victories with four games remaining in the season and only one year after they managed just four wins.
With the team only losing one senior after the season and a strong group of underclassmen returning next year, women’s basketball at Central looks to be a strong contender for years to come.
The biggest reason for this sudden turn of events can be found just underneath Detrick Gymnasium in the form of the team’s second-year head coach.
Winning seems to follow Piper wherever she goes. During her senior year at Central, 1985-86, she led the Blue Devil basketball team to its best season ever. She won a national championship in Ireland and when she landed her first head coaching job at New Britain High School, she supervised the turnaround from an 0-20 team, to perennial contenders for the state championship.
She then proceeded to capture three during her final five seasons with the Hurricanes and became a CCSU Alumni Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee in 1999.
Then she got the call to return to her alma mater, Central Connecticut, and was charged with the task of rebuilding a program that hadn’t won more than 10 games in six seasons.
But the task of rebuilding is not something that she gravitates to.
“I don’t know why I do that,” said Piper. “I guess it’s about opportunity. At New Britain it was an opportunity to coach and I really wanted to coach and I think here, when I was approached about the job it was just an opportunity – something I wanted to do out of college.”
Her office is simple and unassuming; it doesn’t have to be anything luxurious, as Piper tends to spend most of her time on the court. Her new job no longer allows her the luxury of seeing friends and family on holidays or spending as much time as she’d like hiking with her two dogs Oliver and Reilly.
There are two basketballs that sit above her desk. Both are game balls commemorating her first collegiate victory and her first NEC victory.
Those victories were not easy to come by for Piper. She had to wait until game 10 on Dec. 12, 2006 for that first win and game 14 on Jan. 7, 2007 for that first conference win, a hard fought affair at Wagner College that the Blue Devils pulled out in overtime.
There were only two more victories for the Blue Devils that season and many wrote them off for the 2008-09 season.
The NEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll had them finishing dead last in the conference.
“I was kind of happy that the conference picked us 11th,” said C.J. Jones the Athletic Director at CCSU and the man responsible for bringing Coach Piper into the fold at Central. “Because I would have bet the house, the ranch and everything else that we were not going to finish 11th in the conference.”
Jones has been a fan of Coach Piper for years all the way back to Piper’s days as a playerand Jones’ days as an assistant for the men’s basketball team.
He looked to bring her in on more than one occasion, but encountered resistance from some at CCSU who felt it would be a mistake to hire someone with no college experience.
“Probably about five or six years ago I had some interest in her coming in to coach Central,” said Jones. “There was some hesitation on the administration’s part that someone from high school would be successful on the college level. Obviously I didn’t have any doubts, but at that time it wasn’t the right time to fight city hall and bring Beryl in.”
Piper has always been a part of Connecticut and that is something Jones has always wanted in his coaches.
After playing three sports for Trumbull High School, Piper jumped at the chance to play basketball for the Blue Devils and CCSU Alumni Hall of Fame coach Dr. Brenda Reilly as a freshman in 1982.
It wasn’t long before Piper helped lead a turnaround in the Blue Devil program. Central went from 9-18 her sophomore year to 24-4 in her senior season. The season was the perfect stepping stone for the Blue Devils to make the jump from Division II to Division I women’s basketball.
“Knowing the success that she had at New Britain, it makes you want to be around people that are successful… The record speaks for itself,” said assistant coach Glenn Senecal. “I saw New Britain play and I knew the style that they play and the style she likes to play – and to me that’s a lot of fun.”
Senecal watched Piper as he was recruiting some of her players at New Britain High School. Like Piper, he feels at home at Central, which is a far closer commute than his last job at the University of Albany.
“She makes it fun to come to work,” said Senecal. “The success that we’ve had so far, it shows just what kind of style and what kind of coach she is.”
That aspect of fun in Piper’s game is what keeps her players going, too. Piper reaches her team through hands-on coaching, as is evidencedby her heavy involvement in practices and her desire to show players rather than just telling them about how they need to improve.
“She’s been there. She was a player when she played here in college, so she knows what it’s like. The monotony sometimes of a four- or five-month season – she knows how to break that up,” said junior P.J. Wade, who is one of three players left from the pre-Piper era. “We have extremely hard preseason workouts and a lot of times people used to give up in past seasons.”
Like Wade, most of the players on the team respect Piper’s former experience as a college player and for her time playing professionally in Ireland. Piper’s open-door policy and that of her coaches allows them to easily relate to players.
Even though Piper has been part of numerous turnarounds in her career, she isn’t necessarily looking for the tough assignments; they tend to find her. She was simply looking for the next opportunity and it just so happened that every time she had the challenge of rebuilding the team in front of her.
For now, the only things in front of her are the NEC playoffs and pushing her players to go farther than any other team before them in the tournament.
Wade says that the “never say die” attitude of this year’s team is something that has rubbed off from Coach Piper.
“This season people really wanted to get it done,” Wade said, “to be the best that we could be in the preseason.”
Losing has been a pattern for women’s basketball at CCSU, but it’s something that Piper and the team haven’t let it become acceptable.
“It hasn’t been because the kids haven’t allowed that to happen,” Piper said, “… they stepped up in a positive way.”
-Peter Collin, Managing Editor: firstname.lastname@example.org