Countdown to 2015–16: Deanna Mayza is ready to become Hartford’s leader

Deanna Mayza has lost count of the number of times she’s watched that game. Five times — maybe six? At this point, last season’s America East tournament championship has become embedded in her memory.

This is nothing new, according to Jennifer Rizzotti, Mayza’s head coach at Hartford. “She is really determined to get better,” says Rizzotti, who has grown accustomed to her 5–7 point guard rumbling into her office, several questions on tap: Can we watch film? What do I need to work on? Can you rebound for me while I work out some kinks in my shot?

Rizzotti calls Mayza Hartford’s engine, the Hawks’ most consistent player from a season ago, and their unequivocal leader heading into ‘15–16. “There’s nothing I’ve asked of her that she hasn’t gotten better at,” says Rizzotti.

As a freshman, Mayza started 26 games and averaged a shade under 30 minutes, tops on the team. While she produced 8.8 points, her turnovers outweighed her 2.9 assists, and she shot 34% from the floor, and 25% from three.

Into the gym she went. In ‘14–15, Mayza started every game and finished with 11.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists, while cutting down on her turnover rate. Her field goal percentage hovered around a healthy 40%, and she hit her threes at a 34% clip.

But some memories still fester, and triggered that work ethic. At the outset of that America East tournament title game, Mayza felt she struggled against Albany’s full-court pressure. Back-to-back turnovers in the first few minutes allowed the Great Danes to push to an early seven-point lead.

Never mind that Mayza finished with 22 points, or that her five assists gave her 170 for the season, breaking the program record. Her vision is fixed firmly upon results. To wit: when Mayza is asked about the 25 points she dropped on Penn State last December, she nimbly sidesteps the mention of her own stats. She’d rather talk about the importance of that win for the program.

She’ll watch men’s college basketball games, studying how point guards dictate proceedings. Do they organize their team effectively? All this extra information filters into that steel trap of a mind.

Her commitment has certainly produced results. At The Hill School, in Pennsylvania, Mayza finished with program records for goals, in soccer, and points, in hoops. Mayza notes that this was a pretty cool accomplishment, before adding that she ran track senior year, and helped break the school record in the 4x400 meters — in the state championship.

Leadership, though, has not come as naturally. Rizzotti has told Mayza that it’s not enough for her to set the tone, in terms of intensity. It’s great that you’re in shape, but what are you going to do to make your teammates ready?

“Having the respect of her teammates, showing them that she cares about their success — she’s really come a long way in that area,” says Rizzotti. “She needed to understand that we needed her to be responsible for other people.” Adds Mayza, “The coaching staff have told me exactly what they want me to do. It’s a big adjustment, but I’m ready to do it.”

Mayza can still remember her first talks with Rizzotti, way back on the recruiting trail. Rizzotti said she wanted kids with an insatiable desire to fight for championships.

Music to Mayza’s ears. “I’ve yet to win a basketball championship in my life,” says Mayza. “That’s my main focus, now.”

Back to that Albany game, for one final moment. As Rizzotti watched her team battle, she noticed Mayza rising to the fore, becoming the glue that allowed the Hawks to hang in until the end, when they fell by nine points. OK, thought Rizzotti: This is a possible preview for what these next two years could be like.

Now, Rizzotti has challenged the returning players to carry over the form that saw them surge toward that tournament championship game, after an inconsistent regular season. She’s challenged Mayza to be scrappier on defense and have more of an impact on that end of the court.

“And she will,” says Rizzotti. “The nice thing about Deanna is, when I say something like that to her, she’s like, ‘Alright, show me how to do it.’”

Then, she’ll spend the next week working painstakingly to get it right — and making sure her teammates get it, too.

(Photos courtesy of Hartford Athletics)