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City 6 WBB Q+A: Villanova's Denise Dillon

08/12/2021, 12:15pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
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Villanova looks to improve upon its fifth place finish in the Big East last year (Photo: Sideline Photos)

After over four decades of Harry Perretta on the sidelines for the Villanova women’s basketball program, Denise Dillon took over last year, becoming just the fifth coach in the team’s history.

In her first year at the helm of her alma mater, Dillon - who found success as the head coach of Drexel for the previous 17 years - led the squad to a 17-7 record, a spot in the quarterfinals of the WNIT, and 9-5 mark in the Big East. She’s looking to improve on those marks this season, with a roster composed of some returners and freshmen poised to make an impression. 

The Wildcats return junior forward Maddy Siegrist, who earned Big 5 Player of the Year honors last year after averaging almost 23 points and 10 rebounds a game. Siegrist garnered 13 double-doubles over the course of a 24-game season, netting 30 points or more on six occasions. Also returning is graduate student Brianna Herlihy, a forward who scored 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a contest. 

CoBL spoke to Dillon for an update on her squad, how they handled the pandemic season, and her early thoughts about 2021-22 as her program begins its preparations for the fall. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:

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City 6 WBB Q & A Series: Drexel La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph's | Temple | Villanova

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City of Basketball Love: You’re taking over in the middle of the wildest time any of us have lived through. What was that COVID year like and how does it feel to finally be able to go and do a season with a sense of normalcy? 

Denise Dillon: I think like anybody else, we were just in go mode last year and anxious to get together. I was hired at the end of March and I didn’t get a chance to be with the team and see them until the end of August so that was pretty crazy and finding creative ways to stay connected, get to know each other, so of course, like everyone else, we were killing it on Zoom. We did a lot of Zoom meetings, coach Mary Wooley who came on board and was new, and Michelle Baker were creative with some games there but I think our approach with all the coaches with our team was just take the time to get to know each other. Phone calls and just checking in and asking questions. I think that really helped, just with bridging the gap there, so that when we did get together here at the end of August we were able to take advantage of some court time and starting to play and train, so that was really helpful. I have to think back to it, because now it's a normal summer and we have everyone back on campus with great appreciation to be able to do that, but it's always good to reflect back on what we went through and what we accomplished and I’ll continue to remind the team of how great they all were through it. 

CoBL: You mentioned some of the Zoom meetings, was there something especially creative that you guys were able to do that really worked?

DD: I think some fun things were a scavenger hunt, go around and find something then break off into teams so you had to run around your house, or wherever you were, and find it and bring it back. I think that was enjoyable. You can quickly see how competitive the team was with that. So, I certainly enjoyed that. And some trivia things, there was trivia on each other so that was a helpful way of getting to know each other, and trivia about Villanova. That was something Mary and Baker wanted to do so they could become more familiar with Villanova as well, so that was a lot of fun.

CoBL: You weren’t able to go out and recruit but you still brought in a five-girl freshman class, how were you able to put together a freshman class when you can’t go out, can’t go to schools, can’t meet anybody?

DD: I think what certainly helped was coming from Drexel, a local school, being familiar with Villanova, as a graduate here and then coaching here a few years prior to heading to Drexel, keeping on staff, which was huge, Joe Mullaney, and Michelle, she was with me at Drexel. We were recruiting Lucy Olsen and Kaitlyn Orihel, so that was a smooth transition when I got here, knowing they were already talking with both of them, it helped a lot, and I was familiar with them. So they were two that we locked up pretty early. Christina Dalce and Zanai Jones, they were both players we watched, Michelle Baker and I were familiar with, and just jumped on them quickly when we made the transition here just letting them know where we stood, we wanted them to be a part of it and we continued to have the conversations about having on campus thinking, and the reality was as time continued to pass, the parents, themselves, they realized, ‘oh my gosh, we aren’t going to be able to do official visits’ and they took it upon themselves, the three others we have with Anahi-Lee Cauley, Chris (Dalce) and Z (Jones), they all made trips to walk around campus with their families. I think it's really special that their approach to it, to familiarize themselves with the area and campus and just hearing from us and what Villanova had to offer. Blind faith they made the decision and they have really immediately connected and jumped in with everything we were about so it's just really cool to have them here.

CoBL: You took over this program from Harry Perretta, someone who was once your coach and mentor. How does that feel?

DD: It's a dream come true in reality. It sounds cliche but to get into this profession is a gift and Harry allowed that to happen for me when I finished my playing days and he offered me a coaching position two months after graduating. I couldn’t believe it because I always felt the next best thing to playing was coaching and giving back to the program that gave me so much. To be able to be on staff as an assistant was so special and my favorite thing continues to be as a coach the player development and time with them on the court individually and then getting to know them off the court. It gave me the confidence in that time period to learn at a different level. When you’re playing it's instinctual and you’re hearing things but it's so different when you’re then on the sidelines and you’re in a new position. It gave me the confidence to branch off and see what else was out there. The assistant position was open at Drexel and I thought ‘Here’s a chance to bring what I’ve learned to another program and see what we can do’. It even worked in my favor being head coach after two year as an assistant. Bringing all that into play really helped and, of course, building something special at Drexel was tremendous which allowed me to be a candidate for this position when Harry retired. So, it's come full circle to be back here, to take over the program and Harry has done so much for the game, and even more importantly so much for his players in life and as athletes. I recognize that and have a great appreciation for it. To be able to carry that forward is my goal, to make our players the best versions of themselves, to really build off of the foundation that he established and the great success he had here year in and year out. I have some big shoes to fill, but I’m already looking forward to every challenge along the way.

CoBL: You have been coached by the same man that your players have been coached by. How do you think that has helped your transition to Villanova and coaching this new team?

DD: It definitely helps. It was a quick turnaround but we have four returning players that had played under Harry so I think it helps with the transition of comfort and knowing ‘Okay, we’re familiar with what's going on and what we're doing and what was established’. The upperclassmen are definitely ready, willing and able to do whatever else is necessary to continue to increase their performance and the team comradery as well.

CoBL: How do you think your adjustment to the Big East has been?

DD: I certainly feel when you’re coaching you’re doing your best and giving your all no matter where you are. I can say I coached my young nieces when they were little, and I had to settle a little bit because I had the same intensity I would use to coach our college athletes. When you’re coaching you’re into it. The preparation and making sure there is a connection with the team. That’s first and foremost, just focusing in on your group and making sure we're on the same page with what we're trying to establish and accomplish out on the floor. I look down the list of Big East coaches and you really have to make sure you’re prepared and doing everything necessary to get your team ready because they are the best of the best. Obviously you can talk forever about Geno (Auriemma) and what he has done for the game and what he has done at UConn. Someone like Doug Bruno who has been doing it from the beginning as well, so great respect for our coaches in the Big East and I just know that they raise my level of coaching as well. 

CoBL: You mentioned before that Harry Peretta helped make your dreams come true and you were really successful when you played at Villanova. What is your team’s dream and program goals for next year?

DD: First and foremost they talk about post-season play and the NCAA tournament and of course, as we recognize, that’s every team coming into the coaches office, every player is saying the same thing. We’re really big on the steps that need to be taken. The finish line will take care of itself if you prepare each day and you give your all and you are committed to each other and the game. Those intangibles really add up and create the success that you need. We have some real solid individuals here, but that's irrelevant. We have them playing as a group on both ends of the floor, and I feel that this group has quickly bought into that reminder of ‘all right lets give our best, we’re doing an individual workout today, let's work on different areas and develop our game so when were in the game situation live, we’re prepared for what that looks like’. So championships, post-season play, it's there, but it's not something we talk about or hone in on day in and day out. It’s just about getting a little bit better each day and I remind them of the importance to stay committed. 

CoBL: You have some really strong returning players and some new players too, how have those girls stepped into those leadership positions to grow the team as a whole?

DD: We’re really fortunate to have Brianna Herlihy and Maddy Siegrist returning as our captains. They were named captains last year, and it wasn’t just because of their position on the team as more experienced players. We went through a whole breakdown of what it meant to be a captain. Players on the team had to put names in a hat, and they had to go out there and make presentations about why they should be captains for this program. I was really proud that we had a number of players step up willing to be a captain, and when it came down to the voting it was Maddy and Brianna who were picked. They just really grasped the understanding of looking out for their teammates off the court. They are willing to do whatever is necessary on the floor to lead their team but I think the greatest quality in character traits are off the floor, just taking the time to check and see if their teammates are okay and know what’s going on and whatever is necessary. That’s the trust factor you need on the floor. Having Brianna and Maddy on the floor certainly helped us with our freshmen. And [the freshmen] know we need them on the floor. We threw them into the fire early. Maddy has taken the approach of making sure Lucy Olsen is comfortable, keeping an eye on Chris. They’ve done that since day one because they want them ready, they want them prepared for non-league play, and for Big East play. For us to be successful we need them ready. They’re willing to do what is necessary to escalate that process a little bit. 

CoBL: How do you think the way Maddy and Brianna play on the court can contribute to their dreams of a postseason in such a difficult Big East Conference?

DD: There’s no one more competitive than Maddy Siegrist, I’ll tell you that. Everyone has a level of competitiveness in them but she brings it to another level which raises the bar for our team. We play continuity offense and our defense we mix it up a lot with switches and you’ve got to be able to guard big and you’ve got to be able to guard small and she does those things selflessly. She knows sharing the ball, but when it comes down to getting the job done Maddy puts the team on her shoulders and is willing to do everything and anything to make it happen. Her teammates recognize that. I was just talking with one of our freshmen the other day and she was saying ‘ I need that switch that Maddy has, things aren’t going our way  - I got it.” It’s really cool to see as a coach but it's even better when a young player recognizes it in her teammate. Brianna Herlihy is more of a silent, lead by example type of player on the floor. We try to say to her ‘We want to hear you be more vocal, you know what’s going on out there.’ But she’s a workhorse, and the way she goes, her motor, it raises the level of the young ones. In our first month together I’ve been really pleased with the overall effort and commitment to what we are doing and its players like Maddy and Brianna setting the tone each day.

CoBL: Are there any freshmen that you see stepping up in a big way next season to help out?

DD: We only have 12 total on the roster so we’re seeing them out there. You’ll see them early. We’re still trying to get an idea with Zanai Jones, she's been out all summer, so we’re trying to get an idea of where she stands. We’ll have Lucy Olsen in early and often, Christina Dalce as well, she can rotate in that big position, she's a very versatile post player. She’s comfortable with her back to the basket which I love, but she's a player who has no idea at this point her true potential and I love every bit of that.

CoBL: Is there anything you guys are working on right now in practices or anything really promising for next year that you’re seeing?

DD:  Right now I keep explaining to everyone to remain patient. It’s summer so it's about the conditioning, the lifting. I think that’s priority number one in the offseason,staying healthy and fit. With in-court stuff we’re doing a lot of concepts, defensive concepts, what we look to do. On the offensive end, concepts within our offense to read and react cuts and such.

CoBL: A lot of your roster, Kylie, Bella, Maddy, Kenzie, a lot of players come from families with some serious athletes, where do you see that paying off?

DD: I would say one of the best conversations I’ve had with an athlete was when I talked with Bella Runyan last season. I was just saying to her, her commitment to nutrition, conditioning, the weight room, is really admirable especially for a freshman. I was just commending her on it and she said, “You know, my body is my scholarship, so I’m so in tune with the importance of it.” She’s a mover, she just goes. Those were conversations she would have with her dad. You find your edge early in your career. She said her grade school was just about movement. She was just willing to outwork others and develop some skill sets that were necessary in the game but that was first and foremost and she never lost that. That gives you an idea of a young girl growing up in a professional athlete's house and being raised by a great athlete like Jon Runyan. It was neat having that conversation with her, and I think a lot [of the players] are given the same message. There’s a discipline behind it and some bragging rights in the household as well. I know Kenzie Gardler certainly wants to have a more successful career with her team and such than her parents did so she can have those bragging rights. They have an understanding of what it takes at this level and I think that helps them coming in.

CoBL: How’s Bella’s pass blocking?

DD: She is so impressive. She does some things that people don’t notice. But we certainly do. I controlled myself last year talking to her, I didn’t want to get too much into how I loved her father as an Eagle. When she moved in last year we had him here, which was cool. Obviously we didn’t have parents here at games this year so counting on a normal season with the families.

CoBL: How has Villanova changed, whether as an institution or in its athletics mission, how has it changed and how has it stayed the same since you were a student there?

DD: Most importantly how it stayed the same is the commitment to every student here on campus and every person. The genuine love and appreciation for one another is felt and it's special. That’s certainly my favorite thing about it. In athletics, obviously what men’s basketball has done is unprecedented. It’s beyond impressive and that has just continued to put Villanova on national watch and we’re certainly willing to learn from their success and see whatever we can do. The genuine approach to wanting others to succeed, that’s  Jay [Wright] and his staff. They’re always looking out and ready to help in any way, whether it's with our players, they're familiar, they know each other, whether it's just conversation and encouragement, and recruiting. It’s been really nice, it's been great just working together.

CoBL: Did the two national championships on the men's side help you with name recognition on the women’s side?

DD: Absolutely. That’s the first thing I’ll ask talking to a new recruit, ‘What do you know about Villanova?’ And they say, ‘Well the men’s team is good’ and I say ‘that's right, good’. They are familiar, they have watched, they are aware. That’s huge. They know Villanova. When I used to play, we’d be on a road trip in the airport and people would be like ‘Villanova? Where is that?’ Obviously here in Philadelphia it was known, but not when you would hit the Midwest and off to the West Coast, but now everyone is familiar.

CoBL: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

DD:Just to reiterate, the excitement behind having a more normal season is great but just trying to remain patient with that and contain that excitement a little. I know everyone is ready to get back into it but there is something to be said with last year, it's a reminder of the appreciation to just be out on the floor playing and there’s never enough time to express how grateful I am that the administration allowed that to happen and around the country. It's put in perspective. You never know when things you love are going to be taken away from you, so it was embraced by all. My first year was extremely special because of the attitude our players had to represent Villanova.

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