You Say Goodbye…And We Say Hello (Featuring a Conversation with Maria Marchesano)

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Maria Marchesano was announced as the Head Coach of the Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons Women’s Basketball program on March 30. The Fort Wayne native returned home after four seasons at Mount Saint Mary’s in the Northeast Conference. Marchesano took over a team that had just one winning season in the decade prior to hiring her and led it to two in four years, culminating in this both regular season and postseason NEC Championships in 2021.

Returning to her hometown played a significant role in Marchesano’s decision to take the Purdue Fort Wayne job. “There were other options on the table, but it’s really hard to say no to your hometown,” she said in an interview with HoriZone Roundtable, “I think that was a big factor: coming home, wanting to build this program back up, wanting to create something that the city can be proud of and just to be back near my family.”

In addition to a return to Fort Wayne, the move marked a return to the Horizon League for Marchesano. She played in the league for Butler from 2001 to 2005. Realignment has been a major part of Marchesano’s story as it relates to the league. On one side, although she’s a Horizon League alum the Butler team that she played for in college has changed conferences twice since her graduation and is currently in the Big East. On the other, she has experience with several schools that didn’t join the league until after her graduation. While this is her first time back in the league as a coach she’s previously been Associate Head Coach at current member IUPUI, and has been on the sidelines as a coach for conference games against RMU and her new school Purdue Fort Wayne.

While realignment has changed the league’s landscape dramatically since 2005, there’s still a lot that Marchesano finds familiar from her time as a player. “There’s still a lot of similarities,” she said, “Green Bay and Milwaukee are still tough, that was how it was back in the day. That was the worst trip to make to go up there and play those Wisconsin schools. Wright State was always a really good, athletic team. You see that’s still the case. Obviously new faces with IUPUI and Purdue Fort Wayne in the league, but a lot of the same trips. Youngstown, Cleveland State, UIC, Detroit; those are all very familiar faces.”

On paper, adding the 2021 NEC Coach of the Year to a team that went 1-21 this season is the definition of a home run hire. Her predecessor for the award Charlie Buscaglia at Robert Morris saw his team join the Horizon League alongside Purdue Fort Wayne this season, and after losing four-year standout Nneka Ezeigbo and struggling to find a go-to player, finished ahead of the Mastodons in league play. With other programs at the bottom of the league that have replaced coaches recently opting to hire Division I assistants or lower division head coaches, the fact that the Mastodons were able to take advantage of a perfect storm and land a coach with a proven track record as a Division I Head Coach feels like a game-changer.

The Horizon League is clearly a stronger conference than the NEC, but if Marchesano can pull off even remotely the type of turnaround that she has at Mount Saint Mary’s it will dramatically strengthen a league that’s already coming off of a very impressive postseason. The Horizon League pulled off the biggest seedline upset of the NCAA Tournament, a blowout victory in the NIT and a WBI Championship. According to the NET Rankings, Mount Saint Mary’s would’ve been the sixth best team in the Horizon League this season, just behind Northern Kentucky. If Purdue Fort Wayne quickly turns from a team schools are devastated to lose to into one that can finish at least in the middle of the pack, it will serve to strengthen the resumes of the league’s top teams. If the climb continues further than that, dreams of a two-bid Horizon League might become a reality in the not-so-distant future. The evolution of a young Robert Morris team as it finds its new go-to players will play into that as well.

Despite the reason for this change being a difficult season, the way that Purdue Fort Wayne appears to have made an outstanding hire only adds to Horizon League Women’s Basketball’s exciting outlook after a great postseason. It puts pressure not only on the league’s bottom teams to get it right going forward, but arguably on the middle teams as well. It looks like both 2020-21 addition to the league might quickly move out of the bottom third of the league standings.

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