Mike DiMauro: NFA's Gomez: Misery isn't so bad after all

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  • Jennifer Rizzotti
    Basketball player and coach

Jan. 13—NORWICH — Adversity is easily — and perhaps preferably nowadays — avoided. Helicopter parents who practice blame assessment. Image conscious schools embracing convenience over consequence.

Maybe that's what makes sports so discerning. There's no hiding. No avoidance. It's that scoreboard thing. The perpetual reminder.

Perhaps this is something Courtney Gomez has always understood, what with a layered education in sports that has run through her like a current, from a dad, Marty, who has coached for 40 years; a high school coach, Bill Scarlata, who won seven state championships; and Div. I college coach, Jennifer Rizzotti, who is tougher than Ajax.

But this winter, Gomez, who returned to the basketball court at Norwich Free Academy in December with the reigning No. 1 girls' team in Connecticut, has been teaching adversity, right there with all the V-cuts, box outs and pivot feet. The reigning No. 1 team, awash in graduations and youngins, began the year 0-6.

It is here that Gomez realized the unintended consequence of misery: It's not so bad. Sort of like what Edgar Allen Poe meant when he wrote, "Never to suffer would never to have been blessed."

"When you see a program like NFA start 0-6, it's natural to start asking what happened," Gomez was saying earlier this week during a spirited practice, where the kids sounded nothing like a group in search of answers.

"Even the refs have been like 'Courtney, what's wrong? What happened?' Listen. It's not a bad thing for kids to face adversity. A lot of times you go 0-6 and think a team stinks. But we're getting better at little things. Nobody has been selfish. The kids are starting to understand it takes all of us to be successful. I'm actually happy. I was stressed before the season. But I'm actually happy. For me, I've never been in this position before. The kids haven't. But the beauty of it is teaching them how to persevere."

If the sentiments in the previous paragraph encouraged you to weep tears of joy, go get another hankie. Court of the court isn't even warm yet.

"If you never face adversity, if you've never failed, you need those neurotransmitters in your brain to regenerate for you to understand how to deal with failure," Gomez said. "Do we all want to be successful all the time? Of course. But it's not reality. The true test of your character is when things aren't going your way. Do you quit? Start complaining? Do you blame? Start becoming a bad teammate? Or do you figure out how to get better every day?"

It cannot possibly be understated the value of Gomez's words. And the lessons she's trying to teach. If you are around kids now, you know that quitting and blame assessment are habitual. Just look at overflowing transfer portals and the popularity of prep schools. Stay there and fight? Nah. The grass must be greener elsewhere.

And yet in defeat, some high school girls at NFA are learning things they'll use the rest of their lives.

"Going from No. 1 in the state to 0-6 is a paradigm shift," Gomez said. "A mental paradigm shift. Because you're so competitive, you are going to find a way to turn it around in some way. To me, that challenge is really exciting. To inspire it in the kids is more exciting. To watch it come to fruition, you just want to stand back, smile and be proud. It's one thing to struggle with seniors. But these kids are all freshmen and sophomores.

"My challenge is to come back here every day with energy and passion. The kids feed off your energy. Am I going to come in and act like a baby and pout because we've had success and now all of sudden we don't? They're going to emulate what the coaching staff preaches. Luckily, I have Kris (Lamb) and Kevin (Ericson) and Annie (Zinn). Scarlata has come to practice a few times. Who could be better to teach them?"

It's quite the staff. Gomez learned from Scarlata and Rizzotti. Lamb, who played at UConn, learned from Geno Auriemma. Ericson goes back to Springfield College with Gomez's dad. Zinn is a school counselor — always helpful to have around now that coaches have to be Dr. Naismith and Dr. Phil. And to think some kids have actually left the program for prep school. Question: What prep school, exactly, can match NFA's state-level success, Scarlata/Rizzotti/Auriemma wisdom and a 2,000-kid diverse campus?

Ah, but we forget: The grass must be greener.

Sooner or later, Gomez's lessons and the residual effects of a schedule with No. 4 Ridgefield, No. 11 Bacon, No. 16 Middletown and No. 25 Mercy will bring NFA back to familiar ground. Even if it doesn't, the experiences will last long into adulthood. Remember E.A. Poe: "Never to suffer would never to have been blessed."

"For us as a staff, it's more about winning the little things every day and embracing adversity," Gomez said. "We hope that as the season progresses, every team that plays us doesn't want to play us again, especially in the ECC Tournament."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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