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Tammi Reiss Searched Out Versatility And Depth Last Summer …

... And It Paid Off!

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

The Rhode Island Rams Women’s Basketball program, led by magnetically charismatic Coach Tammi Reiss, capped an historic regular season, finishing 23-5 (14-2 in league play) and garnering a share of the Atlantic 10 title. Reiss was named A10 Coach of the Year for the second time in three years, while junior Maye’ Toure’ snared a 1st Team All-Conference spot, grabbed Most Improved Player honors, and was joined on the all-conference teams by 3rd Team selection Madison Hattix-Covington.

It’s been an arduous yet wholly rewarding – and continuing – ride for Reiss since she assumed the helm of a downtrodden program on April 18, 2019. What she, her fellow coaches, players, and the supporting staff at Rhode Island have done since then is remarkable.

We caught up on a (finally) snowy day in Rhode Island earlier this week as the team sets its sights on a conference tournament championship in Delaware.

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

Chris DiSano: Hi coach, congratulations on a terrific season to date and all the accompanying accolades. Can you reflect on your journey from day one here to, at least from a regular season standpoint, culminating in the pinnacle of accomplishments with this conference title?

Tammi Reiss: It’s crazy. As a staff, we talked about it after we won the regular season championship. I can remember when I first took over this program. I lived at the soccer coach’s house and there were so many things to do. The million things you think about behind the scenes that have to be in place to run a program; nothing was done (job descriptions, etc.). I was working around the clock and I freaking out because I don’t have my animals, my significant other isn’t with me, I’m alone and sleep deprived. I can remember crying one night on the phone and asking myself “what did I do?”

Gradually as people came on board and we started to get this thing rolling… it was the process. The first year was so difficult in establishing a culture, trying to get kids to come to a place that traditionally didn’t win, and we were trying to constantly climb the mountain in everything we did.

Fast forward to walking up the ladder (last weekend) and cutting the nets down… That was our goal. To build a championship culture and to do it the right way. That’s what I thought about. The hardships we went through. The adversity and tough situations that grew us to this point. It was a flash of 50 million images that went through my head: of players, people who helped us get to where we are, it was crazy. That’s what I was thinking about after the game. Did this really happen? All this work we did, it was complete satisfaction because we did it the right way, our kids did it the right way, we were process oriented, and we didn’t sacrifice anything for that championship.

Photo: Connor Caldon

CDD: As you think about this year, beyond the wins and the nets being cut down what has made it so special?

TR: The players and our people. The coaching staff… I was very particular about who we were going to add this year because we lost Sharnee Zoll-Norman and it was a huge loss because she was an integral part of building this program with us. So finding that fourth piece who fit us like a glove was critical. We got really lucky with Takima Keane. She is the perfect fit for us.

It’s our players. It’s the kids who we got to come into this program, Say Say (Sayawni Lassiter), Madison, Emma (Squires) and Tenin (Magassa). They brought in mentorship, leadership, experience, and they are all about the team… they are “we” kids and their families are absolutely incredible. It wasn’t that we went out and collected talent and tried to win the championship sacrificing other things… Saying, “…this kid is worth it, she may screw up off the court and have issues but what a helluva player.” We didn’t do that. We went out and found good team kids who are unselfish, have a “we” mentality, and want to win. We haven’t had one problem. I can’t even tell you – I wish I could make some things up… The worst thing we had was someone overslept once. Overslept! There are no issues. So finally, for the first time as coaches, we coached basketball, we didn’t have to coach culture, effort, going to class, nothing. And that’s a dream.

It’s what Archie [Miller] is trying to establish right now. Culture. This is how we do things here. You don’t want to be a part of it; we’re done. This is what we do. That was our progression from year one. I had the same challenges.

That is it for us. It’s our team. It’s everyone who touches us. We’re all rowing the same way, from our support staff, trainer, academic advisor to our strength and conditioning to our SID… we’re all on the same page. That’s what won us the championship – how we do it here and with whom we do it with, that’s the most important thing.

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

CDD: What has it meant to you to see the fan support and engagement this year?

TR: Besides the growth of our team, to have people support us in Kingston… I understand no one wants to come to a bad product or losing environment, they have better things to do – they have a jobs, kids, things they gotta do…

And so I always said ‘I’ll know when we start winning… I’ll know if this will be the place for me to build a program.’ If we start putting forth a good product and we turn it around, can we get about 2,000 people per game? And they came through.

As a coach, as a women’s basketball fanatic in general, I love our game. It’s the ultimate compliment to a program when you can fill seats. And we’re in the beginning stages of it, but the fans coming and supporting our kids means everything to our coaches and to our kids. That’s the environment players want to play in. They don’t want to win championships if there is nobody around to celebrate with them, no one there to congratulate them. That, as a player, is everything.

From the bottom of our hearts, we have to thank our Rhody nation for coming out and supporting us. It let’s us know that we can build something special here. That I don’t have to go to a BCS program and win to try to pack the stands. I truly believe we can get to between 3,000-5,000 here once we start winning on a consistent basis.

CDD: Let’s move to the floor… Depth has been massive for you this year, with 11 players averaging over 10 minutes per game. What are your reflections on having this depth, its importance to success, style of play and – as we move to the A10 Championship – in the tournament environment?

TR: The biggest thing is that from day one of the summer we had so many unknowns. We lost four starters, we lost 70% of our rebounding, and this is a competitive environment. When you come here you have to earn your minutes. And they went after each other. And I mean went after each other. Gradually we realized we had 10 to 12 kids we could play. There wasn’t anything set in stone because of the new environment. Even the seniors we brought in, they knew they had to compete. The competitive environment led to our depth. They all earned these minutes. If someone is not playing well or someone is hurt – you have options as a coach.

Photo: Connor Caldon

It’s the best thing in the world to have options. Our versatility and depth is key. We searched it out this summer because last year it was an Achilles heel; we had no depth and no three-point shooting. Now it’s everything for us.

CDD: When you think about your seniors, how important is it to have veterans to play with, and play for… players who have a sense of urgency?

TR: Overall, the consensus is that we brought the three grad seniors: Maddie, Say, and Emma in because they were incredible people. They had great experience, some have championship experience, been in incredibly competitive environments, been captains and led – and for the most part we needed that. Besides Dolly (Cairns) who played as a sophomore, nobody played significant roles. We had no leadership, experience, captains… so how they were going to come in and be strong enough to lead us… knowing how it’s done – that has been so important to us. Besides their skill levels, what we needed was their intangibles. It’s what we lacked last year. Especially when we hit adversity. And these three have been vital and important in helping the younger players grow because they’ve been though it. They’re such caring kids that they knew how to do it the right way and it has been invaluable. These kids love each other and play for each other… and it’s the area where this team is better than the other teams I’ve coached here.

CDD: As you set sights on Delaware and the conference tournament, what does this crew need to do to emerge victorious?

TR: They have to refocus. They had a great practice today (Tuesday 2.28). I told them it’s not what you achieve, it’s what you become. They became champions. Now what goes along with this is you have to act like a champion, and champions are never satisfied. They’re constantly in a progress phase of getting better every day.

I gave them two days to enjoy it. Now you walk with a different swagger. You know you can do it, but can you sustain it? What keeps you sustaining it is your daily habits, your focus and discipline. It’s all those things. That’s what we have to do. The effort, enthusiasm, and energy is at an all-time high because the stakes are even again. It’s 0-0. Everyone is bringing it. They have to have pure joy and be ready to play and the second thing is our preparation and habits have to show that we’re hungry enough to sustain being a champion.

Chris DiSano is Rhode Island’s color commentator for Learfield, an Atlantic 10 analyst, and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44