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Jennifer Rizzotti finds right fit at George Washington

Jennifer Rizzotti and George Washington are off to a 1-1 start after beating Princeton and losing to Georgetown. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

WASHINGTON -- When women's basketball players at George Washington learned this past offseason that the school had named a new coach for their program, they quickly turned to their cell phones and a team group chat to disseminate any information they could dig up on the hire.

It didn't take long before a string of impressive YouTube highlights of a quick and crafty 5-foot-6 guard from UConn began to circulate. The team sentiment quickly swung from curiosity to shock and excitement.

"In the team group message we talked like, 'Are you kidding me, this stud is going to be our coach?' " senior guard Hannah Schaible said.

The stud was 1996 Wade Trophy winner Jennifer Rizzotti, who in April signed on as coach at George Washington after 17 seasons at Hartford, where she won 316 games en route to becoming the winningest coach in America East Conference history. Rizzotti is George Washington's 10th coach and first female coach since Jennifer Bednarek in the 1988-89 season.

For many, Rizzotti's departure from Hartford -- which she led to five conference championships and six NCAA tournament appearances -- was received with the same level of shock as that of her newly inherited roster. Rizzotti, 41, had said that few schools could get her to uproot her family, which includes two sons and husband Bill Sullivan, who joins her on the bench in Foggy Bottom as an associate head coach.

"We've been lucky enough to have a great coaching staff that has come in and changed the program for the better. Not every change is bad."

Senior Caira Washington on new coach Jennifer Rizzotti

George Washington, however, was on that selective list, especially after coach Jonathan Tsipis had rebuilt the Colonials in his four seasons there before leaving to coach Wisconsin in March.

"I wanted to go to a program that was successful, rather than a program that I had to rebuild, so that initially made the job attractive to me -- because the coach was leaving for a bigger job and not leaving because he was fired," Rizzotti said. "There's already an established winning culture here and a foundation of doing things the right way."

Geno Auriemma, Rizzotti's longtime mentor after playing for him at UConn and then serving as an assistant coach on his gold-medal winning team in the Rio Olympics, has complete confidence in her ability to succeed in her new role. And unlike others, Auriemma said he was not surprised by Rizzotti's decision to leave for George Washington.

"I think there has been opportunities for Jen to move in the past, but for whatever reasons, she didn't think that the time was right," said Auriemma, who added that he and Rizzotti had spoken briefly about the challenges that come with transitioning to another program. "There was never a feeling of, 'I never want to move' or 'I'm afraid to move'; the timing was never right.

"I knew that people weren't going to stop pursuing Jen, so the fact that she left doesn't surprise me one bit."

Rizzotti inherited a George Washington program that has impressed in recent years as it works toward regaining its once consistent NCAA tournament presence under former coach Joe McKeown. Between 1999-2008, George Washington made nine straight NCAA tournament appearances, including consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 in 2007-08. In the past two seasons, George Washington won back-to-back A-10 championships but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament both times.

Rizzotti won't have to rebuild the program, but she will have to retool the roster now that Jonquel Jones, the face of the program the past two seasons, was selected No. 6 overall in the WNBA draft. Helped by Jones' 14.6 rebounds per game in an abbreviated season due to injury, George Washington led the nation in rebounding (48.6 per game) in 2015-16. Point guard Lauren Chase, who ranked 15th in the country in assists last season, has also graduated.

The Colonials were picked fourth in the A-10 preseason coaches' poll. If you ask Rizzotti, however, that's exactly where she wants to be to start her first season in her new home.

"I kind of had a feeling that we wouldn't be a favorite to win the conference, but we certainly wouldn't be picked 14th, either," Rizzotti said. "That's a pretty good situation to be in your first year."

Without Jones, Rizzotti will rely heavily on senior forward Caira Washington, an A-10 preseason first-team selection, in the frontcourt. Along with junior forward Kellie Prange as well as graduate transfer forward Lexi Martins, who led the nation in total rebounds a year ago while at Lehigh, Rizzotti believes the team can remain dominant on the boards.

In addition to Washington, the team will also turn to junior guard Brianna Cummings for a breakout season on the wing. A former five-star recruit, the 5-foot-10 Cummings emerged last season as a formidable scorer for the Colonials, demonstrating an ability to both get to the rim and consistently connect from midrange.

The big question for the Colonials is at the tip of the backcourt, where Rizzotti will juggle between two inexperienced point guards in sophomore Mei-Lyn Bautista and junior Camila Tapias to run the floor.

George Washington is off to a 1-1 start, delivering the first win of the Rizzotti era on Sunday with a 56-45 victory over Princeton. Players like Washington are optimistic about the team's potential.

"We've been lucky enough to have a great coaching staff that has come in and changed the program for the better," Washington said. "Not every change is bad."

Rizzotti admits that she has first-season nerves, a feeling she hasn't had to deal with in almost two decades. And more than anything, Rizzotti has no interest in a new coach's grace period.

"I want to make it a quick adjustment and a quick transition so what they're used to -- which is winning -- doesn't go away," she said. "I don't want to lose that sensation and that feeling. Yeah, I feel the pressure."