Just when you thought St. John's women's basketball had reached its zenith in recent years, the Lady Johnnies added two more glaring bullets to their list of accomplishments: a stunning road upset of conference foe UConn, the New York Yankees of women's basketball, and the program's first ever Sweet 16 appearance.
However, when it appeared that nothing could stop the Lady Johnnies' ascent up the ladder of the nation's elite, head coach Kim Barnes Arico moved on after constructing a program out of nothing and building it into the more respected and more successful of the two basketball teams on campus over her ten years.
The former coach moved on to the University of Michigan. After a brief national search that merely served as a formality, St. John's made the best, and perhaps only, choice by selecting Joe Tartamella as her replacement to continue building a tradition of success. Tartamella, Barnes Arico's top assistant, had spent the previous nine years near her on the bench as one of her most loyal deputies.
Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to finally catch up with Tartamella, whom I had known but never met during his days as an assistant and mine as a broadcaster and student. What followed was a conversation that led me to come away thinking that the best truly is yet to come for a coach who has enjoyed as seamless a transition as possible, sliding over from the assistant's chair to that of the head man.
"Expectations have never changed. They (our seniors) want to leave here knowing they brought an NCAA Tournament game here." - Joe Tartamella
In most cases, an assistant coach usually gets his or her first job at a program where rebuilding is necessary almost right out of the gate.
For Tartamella, nothing could be further from the truth. He prepares for his maiden voyage at the helm by returning the core players from last year's banner season, including senior guards Nadirah McKenith, Eugeneia McPherson and Shenneika Smith, while only losing two players from last year's squad - even if one of them is one of the greatest players in Red Storm history, Da'Shena Stevens. Yet despite the abundance of riches on the St. John's roster now, its new architect remains focused on the long haul and how to replace his stars.
"We're in a great state of affairs right now," Tartamella said. "However, you're probably only as good as your last season, and I think the biggest part of that is making sure that we continue to recruit. It's really important over the next two years that we're able to bring in the right players to our program, which I feel I have a great handle on having been here for a while and having been able to see what's been successful and what's not been successful."
So far, St. John's has done exactly that, bringing four incoming freshmen into the fold. The newcomers include Connecticut guard Ashley Perez, who comes to St. John's having set her high school's all-time scoring record. Perez is hailed by her new coach for her long-range shooting, something St. John's has not had consistently since Kelly McManmon graduated in 2010.
Also included in the group is Nigerian forward Sandra Udobi, whose rebounding presence and what Tartamella terms "savvy" in the paint will go a long way toward combining with incumbents Mary Nwachukwu and Amber Thompson in replacing Stevens.
"From Coach (Norm) Roberts, to Coach (Steve) Lavin, and now with Coach (Gene) Keady walking the hallways, Coach (Mike) Dunlap for two years, there's a wealth of knowledge around you that you can just soak up; and as a young coach, I couldn't be more excited to be able to sit with those guys and learn different facets of the game." - Joe Tartamella
At just 33 years old, Tartamella is one year older than Barnes Arico was when she coached her first game at St. John's a decade ago. In spite of his relative youth, the coach is grateful for the opportunities he has had. And he continues to enjoy the opportunity to grow along with his players.
"In some instances, I think being young has maybe afforded me an opportunity to relate a little bit more with some of them," said Tartamella, "but the experiences I've had with the people I've been able to coach with have kind of pushed me along to this point in my career."
In addition to growing as a coach, the bonds that currently exist between coach and players will grow stronger as well, since Tartamella has an existing relationship with the players as an assistant. He is grateful for that connection.
"I think our players have an understanding of who I am," he said. "I don't have to convince them, whereas if I started somewhere else, I would have to build trust again and get those players to know what it's about. Here, we have that built in."
Having a familiarity with his players that most coaches do not have the luxury of in their initial seasons will help St. John's tremendously when the season tips off in Daytona Beach on November 9th, even as the Red Storm are perceived as a bigger threat than they were in years past.
"Do we become the 'hunted?' Well, I think we've had that target now." - Joe Tartamella
"I think it gives us a different identity from the outside looking in, but our identity hasn't changed from the inside looking out," Tartamella stated with regard to St. John's having a bigger target on its back this season after last year's regional semifinal berth. "We add dimensions to our game, but we don't stray from what has been important to us."
In his opening statement to begin media day, Tartamella spoke of the goal of being able to compete in an NCAA Tournament game at home in Carnesecca Arena, which will host subregional games during the first two rounds in March.
Having been on the opposite side of the coin twice in the last three years against Florida State and Oklahoma in true road games in the tournament, the coach knows the atmosphere becomes magnified, an obvious aid to the home team.
"To bring it here, if you look at our record here in the past couple of years, there's no question that it could be advantageous to us," the coach said when discussing a potential NCAA Tournament home game. "I think it would be a great exclamation point to a fantastic four years for our seniors, to be able to leave that piece behind."
Ten years ago, such a prospect seemed impossible. Six months ago, some still doubted whether St. John's would be able to go on without Barnes Arico. Now, the dream is one step closer to becoming a reality, and the man charged with bringing the fairy tale to life is equal parts hopeful and realistic in making that step just the beginning.