One thing he is not new to is turning around a struggling program.
“I’ve had experience before in taking over a program that was struggling and making that program a winner,” said Pietri, JSU's first-year head coach. “The fact that I have been a part of turning something around once before at the Division I level, I just saw an opportunity to hopefully be able to do the same thing.”
Pietri is facing another rebuilding project at JSU, as he is handling a team that won only a game last year. So far this year, the Gamecocks are 0-3 with losses to Ole Miss, Auburn and Georgia Southern -- all on the road.
JSU will play its regular-season home opener tonight at 7 against Kennesaw State.
Pietri's previous rebuilding job came during his time at South Alabama. He took over that program in 2000 following the Jaguars' 10th straight losing season.
“They only averaged eight wins a year,” he said. “The 13 years I was there, we averaged 17 wins a year.”
He is coaching a JSU team that has no seniors, but Pietri said that doesn't give him reason to think the team lacks leadership from older players.
“Candace Morton and Miranda Cantrell were already tabbed moving forward to be captains by the previous staff,” Pietri said. “They already had a leadership structure in the team—even before I arrived.”
Morton has been a starter at guard for the Gamecocks since she was a freshman. Now a junior, she is the most experience player on the roster. In this young season, she leads the team with 19.7 points a game.
Even so, leading in scoring is one thing, while leading an entire team is another.
“I appreciate Candace’s effort, her energy, her intentions, all of it,” Pietri said. “I have not coached a player who deserves success more than she deserves it.”
Added Morton: “It’s just more motivation to keep working hard. Just because you get the approval of your coach or supervisor doesn’t mean you start slacking up. You keep working hard and eventually your hard work will pay off and you’ll get success.”
Pietri has established a team motto -- get better. It is an idea any Gamecock who experienced last season is eager to accept.
“I think from last year, that where we need to start,” junior guard Bria’unna Buckner said. “Just get better every single day and the wins will come.”
Pietri recognizes Buckner’s ability to hit 3-point shots. He referred to it as her “forte.” He added he values her vocal leadership almost as much as her shooting.
“I know that when I’m on on the floor, that is one of the biggest jobs that I have is to be uplifting,” Buckner said. “There’s always going to be things that happen in the game. I just try to let everybody know that we can get better with each possession.”
As expected with any coaching change, the Gamecocks are learning a new system. Pietri has shifted the focus from offense in years to defense.
“It doesn’t matter if you score 99 points,” Morton said. “If the other team scores 100, you’ve still lost.”