Kelly Mazzante admits it was a little strange walking into the visitor’s locker room on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
She also had to sit on the wrong bench.
But as far as Mazzante was concerned, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate place to unofficially begin her college coaching career.
The former Penn State great drew a warm response from the crowd of 3,327 on Sunday as she returned as an assistant coach for Indiana, Pa.
“I enjoyed my career here and to be able to represent Penn State even to this day means a lot,” said Mazzante, who is the Lady Lions’ and Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer with 2,919 points. “To have my first game here is pretty special.”
Mazzante, who was part of WNBA titles in 2007 and 2009 with Phoenix, played her final WNBA game in 2011.
Fitness was her immediate calling, instead of coaching. But, fate took its course and Mazzante landed at a PSAC program led by Tom McConnell, the brother of former Lady Lion great Suzie McConnell-Serio, now the head coach at Pittsburgh.
“After I finished playing, I took two years,” Mazzante said. “I was into the fitness and running boot camps. Then I was approached to help coach a local AAU team. I said, ‘I will never coach, I’ll never coach.’ But, once I got involved with that, it really turned the corner for me. Then I met Coach McConnell at an AAU tournament and it was like the second we met and our first conversation I just knew that this would be a great fit for me.”
Tom McConnell, who followed Mazzante’s career at Penn State and professionally, said the former Big Ten Player of the Year was exactly what he was looking for in an assistant coach.
“To have her on our bench is really special for us and for our players,” he said. “... I have tremendous respect for her and what she’s done. When we met I knew the impact she would make on our players. She has done it all. She has been the leading scorer, been the best player, been injured, had to come off the bench. She relates so well to the players.”
Mazzante, who led the Lady Lions to the Elite Eight in her senior season in 2004, said she draws upon the lessons she learned under coach Rene Portland, assistant Annie Troyan and others at Penn State.
“I think the experiences and things I learned at Penn State, to this day I bring things that Rene used to say in the huddles and things that we went through as a team and as an individual,” she said. “I can still hear those things in my head. I am trying to take those experiences that I learned as a player and relay it and help the kids as a coach.”
She’ll run into former teammate Jess Strom in the PSAC later this season. “I would have never thought that she would be the first head coach,” said Mazzante of her teammate, who is in her third season at California, Pa.
She is not surprised that either have a career in the sport.
“Our staff ran the program the right way,” Mazzante said. “They not only improved our skills as basketball players, but as people. We did things the right way. We learned discipline. Obviously, we learned enough about the game of basketball that we could have a career after it. Kudos to Rene, Annie and the staff that was here.”
Mazzante said the hardest part of coaching is putting into words what she’s been through.
McConnell, who teased Mazzante all week about coming back, has no doubt that she’ll get it.
“As great a player she was, she will be equally as a good coach, but she is an even better person,” he said. “I have enjoyed working with her and love going in every day. She has a positive spirit and we enjoy working together. I’m glad she’s here.”