Greater Atlanta Christian promoted girls basketball assistant Jessica Guarneri to head coach in April when Lady Grooms took a job closer to her home at Landmark Christian. Guarneri has been Grooms’ varsity assistant and the JV head coach for the last two seasons.
She coached for 15 years at the high school and college levels, including seven seasons as a head coach at Robert E. Lee Academy and The King’s Academy in South Carolina.
Guarneri played basketball at UNC-Asheville and Wingate, earning All-American honors in 2003. She was an all-state athlete in three sports (basketball, field hockey and softball) at Piscataway High School in New Jersey.
In this installment of “Getting to Know …,” the multi-talented Guarneri talks to staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including picking basketball over field hockey, spending a year in Australia, painting murals and a shared experience of living in Florence, S.C.
CT: How is the transition going?
JG: It’s going well. It’s awesome that I’ve been here for two years. It’s not as if I have to get accustomed to the layout of the school or the people. So the transition has been relatively smooth. Initially I got hit with a million emails and a million people wanting to talk, but I think it’s gone off great.
CT: What are the best things you learned from Lady?
JG: Lady is unbelievable at connecting with her players. Overall, her passion and her love for her players has been something that has seriously resonated with me. Beyond basketball, the way that she loves and cares about them — and the way that she pushes them for what’s beyond high school.
A lot of these kids have aspirations of playing college basketball, so treat them the way it’s going to be, giving them a realistic view of what it’s going to be like in college.
CT: There are a lot less sunshine and roses at the college level. It verges on job-like.
JG: One hundred percent. I played college basketball and it was job-like. Just knowing what that is like and giving them an experience to get them ready for the next level (is the goal).
CT: Do you have a style of play you particularly prefer — assuming you have the pieces for it?
JG: I’m big on transition basketball, which I do have the pieces for. I’m big on guard-post play. I’m big on pick-and-rolls and just being able to read a defense. I like to mix it up offensively, lots of quick-hitters — as well as defensively. I like for a team not to know what defense they’re going to get coming down the court.
CT: Did you like or dislike the full-court press as a player?
JG: I love the full-court press. I was a player who was able to read the offense relatively well and the full-court press opens up the court enough for you to get lots of steals and push the ball.
CT: It’s a lot of work though.
JG: It is. That’s OK. I was in much better shape (laughing).
CT: We all were. Where did you make your bones on the court?
JG: On the glass. Rebounding was my absolute specialty. Rebounds and put-backs. Rebounding is 95 percent heart because you’ve just gotta want the ball and developing a system where you’re reading the shot. So rebounding was my bread and butter. Then, offensively, grabbing a board and just going right back up with it. That’s where I got the majority of my points.
CT: You played field hockey, which is particular to the north. Did you think about pursuing that, or softball, instead of basketball in college?
JG: Actually, field hockey was by far my favorite. I was a goalie. I loved the sport and being outside. A lot more of my friends in high school played field hockey so it was my favorite in high school. Now, looking into colleges, I did get offers to play field hockey as well, but in talking it over with my parents, we felt like more opportunities would open up in a basketball world. There’s no way I’d be in Atlanta coaching field hockey. Basketball has taken me places.
CT: I played ice hockey. Could I have made the transition to field hockey?
JG: Noooo (laughing). It’s so different. Only being able to hit the ball with one side of your stick with spin, I don’t think it’s similar enough. There’s a million whistles.
CT: Is it closer to lacrosse?
JG: Not even. I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s kind of like soccer with a stick and skirts. No, field hockey is one on its own.
CT: You know what they say about goalies, though, right?
JG: No. (grinning) What? What do they say about goalies? That we’re the best?
CT: A lot of idiosyncrasies.
JG: (laughing) Yeah. I just didn’t want to wear a skirt.
CT: Even with the extra pads, it doesn’t take the sting out of it though.
JG: No. Actually, I broke my pelvis my freshman year playing field hockey. I went for a split save, so turned and pulled every muscle in my right leg. So an evulsion fracture with my pelvis.
CT: Holy … how long were you out?
JG: I was in bed for four weeks. I could get up and go back to school after five weeks. No stairs though. It was tough. And I had just won the varsity position, too, as a freshman. So it was a hit.
CT: I feel like New Jersey might get a bad rap.
JG: Absolutely. (laughing) Armpit of America.
CT: What should I see or do if I visit?
JG: The first thing I do when I go home is get a slice of pizza. I don’t think anybody has been to New Jersey and not enjoyed the food. Tons of places I would put on your list for food. I love the diversity of New Jersey. I love all of the different cultures that I grew up with and was exposed to at a young age.
CT: You go back a couple of times a year?
JG: Most of my family, except for one sister in California, is still up there. I go up for Christmas and the Fourth of July every year just to see them.
CT: What was the biggest adjustment for you when you moved to the South for college?
JG: The pace. It’s true, everything is slower in the South.
CT: I had a hard time when I made phone calls not jumping right to the point, the “hey, how are you?” part.
JG: The speed at restaurants, the “hey, no, we’re here for more than just a meal.” The pace was probably the biggest adjustment for me. And that not everybody will say stuff right to your face. I’m going to tell you how I feel so getting around the “bless your heart.”
CT: Which doesn’t even mean bless your heart.
JG: (laughing) No, it doesn’t. It means a lot more.
CT: Was teaching and coaching the intent when you went off to college?
JG: Never. No, no, no. I went to college to be an architect. My high school had an unbelievable graphic design and architecture program. When I went to college, Asheville actually put together this pre-architecture major for me.
Then when I transferred to Wingate, they didn’t have anything like that. I didn’t want to be an art major so I decided to take business classes and be a marketing major. Then when I finished college, the coach at Francis Marion loved my energy and my energy on the court, and offered me a college coaching position straight out of college. That’s what got me into coaching. I coached in college for three years and then I thought, “What am I going to do?”
I lived in Australia for a year. About three hours in from Sydney, in a tiny town. I bottled wine and traveled around. That was amazing. That was in 2008.
Then when I came back, I had no idea what I was going to do.
My sister asked me to coach high school up with her in New Jersey. I still owned the house in Florence (S.C.), but I was her assistant and rented it out to three Francis Marion coaches. Robbie Wilson, (GAC’s baseball head coach), he’s my best friend from Florence and he’s the reason I’m here.
I coached with my sister and then became a long-term sub there and was like, hey, this is kind of cool.
Then the Francis Marion head baseball coach, Art Inabinet, he knew the athletic director at Robert E. Lee. He connected me and I started teaching and coaching.
And Robbie was Art’s assistant for 10 years before he took this job.
CT: There are a number of things I miss about that area — even though no one knows where it is really.
JG: Florence, as a community, embraces people. I’ve met absolutely irreplaceable friends in Florence. They loyalties run deep. I go back often to see so many people. Atlanta, as much as it has to offer and as much as I love it here, just that small-town feel in some of those towns in South Carolina, where you can have those connections, is great.
CT: You paint in your down time?
JG: I do. I made an extra trip to New Jersey in April because my sister had a baby. So my other sister roped me into painting a mural while I was there. And I painted a mural over Christmas break for one of my sister’s good friends. I mean, I’m not actively looking for things, but if people as me to do things, I’ll paint murals. I love to paint.
I was big into it back when I was at these smaller schools because I had no money. When I worked at The King’s Academy in Florence, I coached JV and varsity volleyball, JV and varsity basketball, I worked at the UPS store, I wrote sports for the paper in Bishopville and then I would paint. I did everything I could to make some extra money, but painting a wall, I loved.
CT: Is there an artist or school of art that appeals to you?
JG: M.C. Escher is by far my favorite artist.
CT: I probably should have guessed that based on the architecture deal.
JG: I love the realism but also the way it makes your eyes move. I like the optical illusion.
CT: If you could pick three historical figure to have dinner with, who would it be?
JG: OK. I’d go with Jesus Christ for No. 1. First and foremost, I’m a Christian. No. 2, da Vinci. Art-wise, I want to know what’s going on in there. And then, I’d go with Pat Summitt. There’s just so much depth to her coaching and her player relationships. My college post coach was Abby Conklin who played for Pat. The relationship they had, at least to the public, was volatile, but I think she pulled the best she could out of Abby. I don’t think that technique would work now, but just picking her brain about basketball.
CT: If the sun is out and the car windows are down, what music are you listening to?
JG: That’s tough. No. 1, I just sold my car. I’m car-less.
CT: I’m pretty sure that doesn’t work here.
JG: I walk to work. I’m seeing how long I can go being car-less.
CT: Is it a personal challenge?
JG: I’m working my tail off to get out of debt. I’m a math teacher so my (department co-workers) are daring me to see. They say the biggest obstacle is mental. I’m seeing budget-wise how much I save.
But I listen to a lot of worship music and whenever I’m painting, it’s Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks. Right now I love Billie Eilish.
CT: Have you binge-watched anything lately?
JG: Oh, I’m a crazy TV person. I re-watched all of “Game of Thrones” in February. I did seven seasons in two weeks. It was our winter break though.
Right now, I’m a little late to the party, but I’m watching the movies that lead up to (Avengers) “Endgame.” The superhero movies aren’t really my thing, but I’m a teacher and (the students) are all into it.
CT: Next vacation spot you’d pick?
JG: I want to get to Paris. Notre Dame hurt my heart.
CT: I was surprised how viscerally it affected me.
JG: All three of my sisters have been. They said, next to the Coliseum, that was the most incredible thing they’d every seen. That made me kind of sad that I hadn’t gotten there, but I’d still say Paris. And Rome.
CT: Is there a talent you wish you had? Or a skill?
JG: My sisters play this stupid game, “What can’t Jess do?” Because I do anything, lay tile, paint, whatever.
Oh! Interior design. I can’t. I wish I could, but no, I need massive help.
CT: Which is interesting since you’re an artist.
JG: It’s weird.