NORTH HAVEN — The Whiffle ball field at Jenn Piazza’s house is out back. The basketball hoop is in the driveway out front.
Front to back, back to front, though the house or through the gate outside, go her three boys — 7-year-old Jeremy (a.k.a. J.J.), 5-year-old Liam and the little guy, 3-year-old Hunter.
Hunter is not going to let you forget about him.
“Mommy,” he demands. “Come play HORSE with me.”
“Go shoot and I’ll come play HORSE with you in a while.”
“No, you play HORSE with me now!”
Jenn Piazza, sports star at Lyman Hall High School at the turn of the century, who played both basketball and softball at the college level, cannot get away from the arena even if she tried.
How could she? Piazza, now 32 and now Jenn Laffin, wife of Rob Laffin, is the mother of three boys, and they’re already starting to get into organized hockey and baseball.
Then again, why would she ever want to leave the athletic world behind? She grew up with non-stop sports, whether watching them on TV or (more frequently) playing outside with her big brother Michael and the boys in the neighborhood.
“We would play Home Run Derby and every other sport. We would try all different kinds of sports,” she recalled recently. “And then my father would take me down to New Haven and I’d play with the boys at Conte [Middle School]. That’s how I grew up playing basketball.”
Summer is the season for the “Where Are They Now?” stories. Where is Jenn Piazza? Wearing a different hat, but still wherever a good game can be found, even if it’s HORSE out in the driveway.
This spring, Piazza put in her first season coaching varsity softball at Mercy High School. This summer, she was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
That was a pretty cool night in Worcester, Mass. back on August 8. Not only did Jenn get inducted, she got inducted in the same class with her mom, former Lyman Hall athletic director Elaine Piazza.
Elaine Piazza was a fine athlete in her own right. She played softball with the famed Raybestos Brakettes. While still a student at Shelton High, she was a driving force in getting girls basketball started at that school in 1970 under coach Berniece Nicolari and assistant Celeste Beattie.
Neat sidelight: Shelton’s 1976 state championship team was inducted into the New England Hall the same night as the Piazzas.
These are women Jenn has known all her life. She’s well aware of the trails they blazed in the fledgling days of Title IX as women’s sports battled to merely get off the ground.
“They had to go through a lot of hardships and people telling them they can’t do this, they can’t do that,” said Jenn. “To know how strong my mom and her teammates and their coach were to get through that time so that I could just pick up a ball and everybody thought, ‘This is what girls are supposed to do: Go play basketball, go play softball.’”
Jenn played and she played very well. Volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, softball in the spring.
The 1,507 points Piazza scored at Lyman Hall still stand as the girls’ school record. So do the 543 points she scored in a single season as a senior. So do the 137 3-pointers she hit over the course of her career.
The scoring numbers are impressive because Piazza was not a one-girl show. She was teammates with Brynn Gingras, a standout in her own right who went on to play at Yale.
“Those two together were great,” recalled Mercy coach Tim Kohs, whose teams faced the Trojans of the Piazza/Gingras Era. “When I think of that team, they were one of the better backcourts in the league.”
Piazza was also a force in softball, a power-hitting shortstop. She led LH to the 2001 CIAC Class L final her senior year.
Coming out of high school, the question wasn’t whether Piazza would be a student-athlete in college, but what sport she would play.
Turns out it was two. She first played basketball at Southern New Hampshire. After an unhappy freshman year there, she transferred to Florida Atlantic and switched to softball.
“The school was nice and everything; it just wasn’t for me,” Jenn said of Southern New Hampshire. “It wasn’t a proper fit for me. And I was missing softball. I wanted to play softball. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to slide into a full scholarship and to go down there and play. I loved it: 80 degrees, sunny, there’s palm trees in the outfield.”
And, on the bench, was Joan Joyce, the iconic female athlete from Waterbury, who was so dominant a pitcher she famously once struck out Ted Williams.
Joyce, of course, was more than a softball pitcher. She golfed on the PGA Tour. She played on the U.S. national women’s basketball team and in the U.S. Volleyball Association.
She was an athlete for all seasons, just like Piazza.
It’s in this light that Piazza’s place on the evolutionary chain of girls sports comes into focus. The daughter of a pioneer and now a contemporary coach, Piazza played at a time when girls sports came into their own, yet before they heavily slipped into the Era of Specialization.
In Piazza’s day, the best female athletes played multiple sports. That is now the exception.
The irony is girls and their parents feel the need to specialize for the sake of college recruitment. Often, what coaches want at that level is well-rounded athletes.
“It’s nice to see the girls really getting into a sport and playing that sport, but it’s also nice to see athletes who play more than one sport,” Piazza said. “Coach Joyce, what she looks for are athletes. She doesn’t want someone who just plays softball all year round. She wants an athlete she can do different things with.
“So it’s nice to girls playing basketball, softball, volleyball, soccer. First of all, for your health, you’re working different muscles. You’re not just doing the same muscles. You’re getting the whole package as an athlete. There are some girls, they’re basketball players, they pick up a softball and they can’t do both. I think girls need to not play one sport 365 days of the year.”
Piazza had just finished up her second year of coaching softball at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School when the varsity position at Mercy opened up.
Kohs, who is the school’s athletic director as well as its basketball coach, called Piazza up. He wanted to make sure she knew about it.
“She was the first person who came to mind,” he said. “I knew she’d be interested and she was. She wound up making it an easy decision for me.”
Piazza had a solid first year with the Tigers. After a slow start, they got rolling, finished the regular season 14-6 and reached the second round of the CIAC Class LL tournament.
There was one hiccup. Actually, it was more than a hiccup. While running with her team in the gym during preseason, Piazza tore her Achilles tendon. She started the season on the crutches and having her dad George drive her to and from practices.
That was it, though. Piazza and her players meshed very well. She had good players. The seniors were excellent leaders. Communication flowed.
There weren’t even any of the inevitable parental complaints over playing time. Piazza, said Kohs, was adept at making every player, from top to bottom, feel part of the team.
“I crutched into a really good situation,” Piazza giggled, adding, “I really enjoy Mercy. The athletic director has been very supportive and the girls are great. I feel like I could stay there for a long time.”
There isn’t much of a secret to Piazza’s knack for coaching. For one thing, she’s had plenty of mentors from whom she borrows: Joyce, John Stratton and Mike Scanlon in softball; Al Lewis, Art Knapp, Nick Economopoulos and Joe Frager in basketball; even Fran Stupakevech in gym class.
“I had his influence about having no fear and just going and playing,” she said of the latter, then added, “My biggest coaches, though, were my parents and my brother. My parents had me play sports not just to play them, but to get the experiences and values that you don’t get just sitting around the house.”
The other key to Piazza’s coaching is her demeanor. She is, she quips, “an easy transitioner.” As a P.E. teacher at Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy in Orange, Piazza works with children from age 2 all the way up to ninth grade.
“So I know how to change my attitude and personality in a second,” she said. “I’ve learned how to adapt very quickly.”
Actually, Piazza had that ability in her playing days.
“She was always very calm in a game,” said Elaine Piazza. “You wanted the bat or ball in her hands in a very close game.”
Being a mother now in her own right has only furthered Jenn’s ability to go roll with a situation. While she’s got her eyes on her boys, she does not hover. They’re out front. They’re out back. They’re in the house. They’re back outside. A hectoring voice does not follow them.
“I’m a very easy mom,” Jenn said. “I enjoy watching them get dirty and then seeing the bathtub at the end of the day get black. They’re getting their hands dirty. They’re being adventurous, creative. It’s what little boys are supposed to do.”
It’s the same mindset Piazza takes into coaching her girls at Mercy. “Whatever happens, you just have to go with the flow and improvise.”
Elaine Piazza says her daughter’s best asset is her “feel” for the game. It’s an innate sense forged from those early days of watching sports on TV and playing games under loose supervision or none at all.
“She played without anyone telling her what to do, so you learn fast because you’ve got to think,” Elaine said. “Knowing what to do and when to do it is a talent in itself.”
It could be said this is another divide between Piazza and the modern female athlete, many of whom learn their specialty sport at clinics and in organized leagues. She notes the difference herself.
Yet, ultimately, Piazza is not about division. She’s part of a chain and she embraces it.
“I think I have a real good rapport with younger girls,” Piazza said. “I’m having fun doing it, teaching the girls things I’ve learned from other coaches.”
With or without Hunter tugging at her jersey for that game of HORSE, she’s also aware the chain extends beyond the arena.
“The experiences I got through playing basketball and softball, playing all sports: Those were the experiences that shaped me and made me the kind of wife and the kind of mother I am today.”
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