Plum grad Courtney Zezza proving she's more than just a shot-blocker at St. Francis (Pa.)
It was a sunny, hot and humid late-August day when Courtney Zezza took a stroll around Saint Francis' Loretto campus with Red Flash women's basketball coach Joe Haigh, who after a lengthy conversation made his pitch and offered a scholarship to the lightly recruited Plum standout.
“I kind of had the talk with her and said, ‘I'm going to offer you a scholarship, but don't take it because it's your only Division I offer,” said Haigh, in his sixth season as the Red Flash coach. “I remember telling her that you're not very good and everybody in Pittsburgh doesn't think you can play D-I ball and then I said, but that's right now, and she knew that.”
Zezza not only used Haigh's words as motivation but became committed to proving everybody back home that they were wrong.
Now a junior, Zezza has not only met the expectations her coach set for her but has exceeded them. The 6-foot-4 forward/center has become a force on the court and is beginning to make a name for herself as one of the best shot-blockers in women's Division I basketball.
“I thought to myself that I can work hard and prove these people wrong,” said Zezza who earned first-team all-section honors following her senior season with the Mustangs. “I'm realizing now that I've probably changed the minds of what they think.”
Zezza went from barely seeing the court to start her freshman season to finding a role late and then blowing up her sophomore season when she finished fifth in the nation with 110 blocked shots.
“Its really exciting (blocking shots) because people drive in on you and you can tell that people are scared when they come inside,” Zezza said.
Zezza's performance her sophomore year was exactly what Haigh hoped for when he followed his gut feeling on Zezza and offered her a scholarship.
“Once she got to St. Francis, she continued to get better and better, and I think she's gotten better than anybody could have projected,” Haigh said. “She's done the work in the weight room. She can drive, take a couple dribbles and go to the rim. She does a lot of things that you wouldn't expect a 6-4 girl to do.”
A mid-December trip to the Pacific Northwest provided another benchmark in Zezza's journey and development as a basketball player. The Red Flash (7-7, 2-0 Northeast Conference) dropped the first of their three games on the trip, falling 97-74 to Gonzaga in Seattle, but they followed that with a game against the Portland that would go down in the record books as the second-largest comeback in NCAA women's basketball history.
St. Francis fought back from a 29-point second-half deficit to go on and beat the Pilots by forcing not one but two overtimes to pick up the 106-101 win. Zezza's work around the hoop gave the Red Flashes the edge late in the second overtime when she cleaned up a missed shot with a putback to extend St. Francis' lead to five points.
“Our coach came in and talked to us (at halftime) and said he knew that we could come back and I guess we just refocused as a team,” Zezza said. “I think it definitely boosted our confidence as a team knowing that we could do that by being down by more than 20 points and do something like that.”
The overtime win was proof that Zezza had become more than just a shot-blocker, as she swatted just two shots. She turned the corner when it came to her offensive development by scoring 16 points and pulling down nine rebounds, both season highs.
Zezza ranks second in the Northeast Conference in blocked shots (27) and just outside of the top 10 in total rebounds and defensive rebounds. She's averaging 6.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks coming mostly off the bench and has 12 3-pointers, nearly one per game.
“She has the versatility by playing out on the perimeter more because of her ability to shot the ball out there,” Haigh said. “Who knew she could shoot the 3 the way she does. Courtney is really a good story.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.