Fabbri's ups, downs have lifted Quinnipiac's women's basketball program to a higher level

By Logan Reardon

March 11, 2019. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) women’s basketball title game between Quinnipiac University and Marist College.

Final score? Bobcats 81, Red Foxes 51.

Quinnipiac clinches yet another MAAC championship.

As the buzzer sounds, head coach Tricia Fabbri eagerly storms the court with her team, making sure she hugs each and every person she can find.

Her family – who, from the 25th row in a mostly empty arena, berated the referees endlessly throughout the game – comes down and gets their chance at a hug. A long embrace between the family, tears inching down some faces, and then it’s back to business.

The next day, she’s in her office preparing for the NCAA Tournament.

Fabbri and her five seniors celebrate the 2019 MAAC title. (Photo by Morgan Tencza)

Fabbri and her five seniors celebrate the 2019 MAAC title. (Photo by Morgan Tencza)

Fairfield University to Quinnipiac University.

It’s a short, 30-minute drive north on I-95.

For the last 32 years, Tricia Fabbri’s life has been defined by those two schools. And for the last 25, the 30-minute drive has been a staple of her daily life.

It all began in 1987, when a 5-foot-11 forward from Delran Township, New Jersey was a freshman on the Fairfield women’s basketball team. Tricia Fabbri – then Tricia Sacca – was a bruiser on the court, tallying 1,622 career points and 1,037 rebounds – both ranking her among the program’s top five.

That fall, though, Tricia found something that she didn’t go to Connecticut expecting to find.

Paul Fabbri graduated from Fairfield in 1987 – just a few months before Tricia arrived – and stayed at the university as a part-timer in the sports information department. He worked with the women’s basketball team during Tricia’s freshman year.

After three All-MAAC First-Team selections, Tricia stayed with the Stags as an assistant coach until 1995, when she saw an opening at Quinnipiac College – a Division II school in nearby Hamden.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I’m ready to become a head coach at 26,’” Tricia said. “I knew a couple people at the University of New Haven who made some calls to (then-Quinnipiac AD) Burt Kahn. I’m still convinced (I was hired because) Burt had two golden labs, and when I went into his office for the interview they were very happy to see me, I was unfazed and we had a good conversation.”

That was a monumental year for the young couple. Tricia and Paul got married in 1995, and both started new jobs that summer – new jobs that each of them still hold 24 years later.

Tricia went to Quinnipiac, while Paul started teaching and coaching baseball at Ridgefield High School, as the couple resided – and still does – in Stratford, a town neighboring Fairfield.

Quinnipiac wasn’t an ideal landing spot for Tricia. It was a lowly Division II program coming off back-to-back 4-22 seasons and it hired a new athletic director – Jack McDonald – soon after Tricia was hired.

“If you have aspirations to be a head coach, you have to start somewhere,” Paul said. “Quinnipiac was in the area and it offered a great opportunity for her just to start and have her own program.

“I think you have to take a risk, but never did I think it would become what it’s become.”

Tricia inherited the program and won 15 games in her first three seasons. Despite the on-court struggles, McDonald and then-Quinnipiac president John Lahey were determined to elevate the university to Division I.

“It was a difficult time,” McDonald said. “She had no full-time assistant coach. She had an office next to the elevator, as big as a closet. The proper support was not there for her. The first three or four years were a real struggle.

“To top it all off, we then dropped on to her, ‘Oh, coach, now you guys are Division I.’ We were playing a Division I schedule with Division III resources.”

Quinnipiac didn’t finish above .500 until Fabbri’s sixth year, but that year was almost her last.

On Dec. 4, 2000, Fabbri nearly left Quinnipiac.

The Quinnipiac Braves (2-2) hosted the Seton Hall Pirates (2-3) at Burt Kahn Court. The Pirates played in the highly-competitive Big East with teams like UConn and Notre Dame, among others. The Braves led by double digits at halftime, but the Pirates stormed back and won in overtime, 63-58.

“The crowd was disappointed – some people chirped some bad things at Trish,” McDonald said. “I go up to my office and I’m shutting down my computer and all of a sudden she walks in. She looks at me – and if the tears weren’t coming down her eyes, they were pretty close.

“She said ‘Jack, I can’t handle this. You deserve better than me. I want to resign.’ And I said ‘Trish, I’m going to pretend you never said that. Get the heck out of my office, go home, have a glass of wine, kiss your husband and hug your kids and we’ll talk on Monday.’ Frankly, that’s sort of the benchmark moment for the program.”

Fabbri (left) was emotional after the 2018 MAAC Championship Game.  Photo by Logan Reardon

Fabbri (left) was emotional after the 2018 MAAC Championship Game.

Photo by Logan Reardon

Quinnipiac has had just three losing seasons since that day.

Now, the only tears Fabbri cries are after winning MAAC championships.

“That was the best thing for us, we took a great turn after that,” Fabbri said. “Jack saw the big picture and I just couldn’t see it. He saw the program moving, even if it was a step-by-step path. He believed in what I was doing.”

Off the court, the Fabbri’s were young parents. Their daughter Carly was born in April 1996, and sons A.J. and Paul Henry followed shortly after.

“I remember coming to her basketball camps when I was 3 years old,” Carly said. “I always had a ball in my hand. Growing up I was the water girl for the team and my mom would take me on any away trips I could go on. I loved being on the road and the bus with the team.”

While it was cool to have her mom coaching a Division I team, it did have some disadvantages.

Carly Fabbri cuts down the net after winning the 2018 MAAC title.  Photo from Logan Reardon

Carly Fabbri cuts down the net after winning the 2018 MAAC title.

Photo from Logan Reardon

“(Tricia) missed Carly’s games when she was playing in high school, same thing with Paul Henry and A.J.,” Paul said. “She missed their games because of her responsibilities and it was extremely frustrating for her.”

Sports are everything in that family. Both of Tricia’s older brothers played Division I college football and each of the three children played in high school. They describe the family as a “team dynamic,” as sports dominate their lifestyle.

For Carly, knowing her mom had to miss some of her games was no big deal. She understood. It was the summer’s that hurt the most.

“I think it really hit home the hardest over the summer when she would go on almost two weeks of being on the road at a time and wasn’t home,” Carly said. “That’s when I would miss her the most. When I was off from school and if I wasn’t able to go recruiting with her, she was just gone for a long time and that’s when I got the most sad.”

As the kids grew older, Tricia’s program began to excel.

Now the Bobcats of Quinnipiac University, Fabbri’s squad won at least 10 conference games for six straight years from 2001 through 2006.

Fabbri credited Kim Misiaszek (‘01) and Colleen Klopp (‘01) – two Connecticut recruits from Old Lyme and Southington, respectively – for getting the team so competitive early in the Northeast Conference (NEC).

Still, people didn’t know what Quinnipiac was.

The name is funky and it’s in the middle of nowhere. So, how was Fabbri able to sell her budding program to recruits?

“As much as recruits will say they choose the school for the school, the coach is a very, very big reason why,” Mandy Pennewell (‘09) said. “It’s somebody that you’re going to love, and love to hate sometimes. You have to be able to handle that relationship at a young age where you are getting critiqued and certain things are expected of you.

“It felt like she was the mother of our herd, and you don’t cross that. You knew you had an environment where you were going to be protected, you were going to thrive and she was going to challenge you and hold you accountable.”

Quinnipiac was – and likely always will be – the “other” women’s college basketball program in Connecticut.

“When I was getting recruited, no one knew what Quinnipiac was,” Pennewell said with a laugh. “Honestly, after I committed, I just started saying I was going to school in Connecticut and everybody would think UConn. If you don’t know women’s college basketball you wouldn’t know.”

Quinnipiac lost to UConn in the 2018 NCAA Tournament Second Round, 71-46. (Photo by Morgan Tencza)

Quinnipiac lost to UConn in the 2018 NCAA Tournament Second Round, 71-46. (Photo by Morgan Tencza)

Now in 2007 with a growing program, Quinnipiac athletics changed forever – and people started to know the name. The People’s United Center (then the TD Bank Sports Center) opened on Jan. 27, 2007, moving the men’s and women’s basketball and ice hockey programs to the new $52 million arena.

“The building separated us from other mid-major universities,” Fabbri said. “This is just the brilliance of John Lahey. He wanted to continue to nationally build an academic reputation for the university, and he used athletics as the front porch. He saw athletics as a way to bring the university to national prominence.

“But it also brought a big responsibility, because if you build this, you better have success.”

MacGillivray celebrates his fifth and final conference championship as a Quinnipiac assistant coach in 2018.  Photo by Logan Reardon

MacGillivray celebrates his fifth and final conference championship as a Quinnipiac assistant coach in 2018.

Photo by Logan Reardon

Quinnipiac played its first full season on York Hill in 2007-08 (25-6, 16-2 NEC), and that coincided with the first postseason berth in program history. The Bobcats hosted future conference foe Iona at the TD Bank Sports Center in the first round of the WNIT on March 18, 2008, but lost, 71-59.

Still, it was another step for the program. Expectations were high as Quinnipiac brought in Mountain MacGillivray as a full-time assistant in 2009.

“When I got there, I said ‘If we don’t have the best roster in the league, we aren’t doing our job, because we’ve got a great school and a great coach and a great campus and a great arena,’” MacGillivray said. “What happened next was kind of inevitable. You just have to work hard and not make mistakes – and Trish rarely made any mistakes when it came to evaluating players and getting the right fits.”

Pennewell, along with Erin Kerner and Brianna Rooney, were some of the “right fits” that MacGillivray described. The trio graduated in 2009 and each made their mark on the program as part of that first postseason team in 2008.

After those three graduated, the program – and the university – took a detour from the progress they were making.

In April 2009, Quinnipiac women’s volleyball coach Robin Lamott Sparks and her players filed a lawsuit against the university. And as Pennewell, Kerner and Rooney left the school, Fabbri was forced to rebuild on the fly while her administration went through the lawsuit.

“(The Title IX case) really was a low point, but Trish did stay focused during it,” McDonald said. “A sign of a good coach is what you can do in adversity more than what you can do in success. She continued to be someone for all the younger women’s coaches to lean on. She was a rock.”

Sparks was a newer coach at Quinnipiac, so she didn’t really establish a relationship with Fabbri before the case.

“I was only there for about a year or two before the Title IX suit,” Sparks said. “And then after that, no one in athletics wanted to talk to me.”

Fabbri spoke on behalf of the basketball program during the case, but the suit didn’t affect her program in any way. In fact, they tried to avoid it all together.

“To a degree, there was separation by distance (because they were on York Hill and the rest of the sports were on main campus),” Fabbri said. “With that separation, I didn’t really know what was going on to be honest with you. No one was really talking about it because it was confidential. We were physically removed from it so I didn’t really get the ins and outs.

“I played a part in the trial, but I just had to answer everything that came and happened with the women’s basketball program. I was resourced and supported very well. It was just basketball, basketball, basketball questions from me so I just answered them.”

Framed QU Chronicle cover in Fabbri’s office after the Bobcats clinched their first NCAA Tournament berth.  Photo by Logan Reardon

Framed QU Chronicle cover in Fabbri’s office after the Bobcats clinched their first NCAA Tournament berth.

Photo by Logan Reardon

While the program was not directly affected by the trial, the team did suffer back-to-back losing seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11. It’s up for debate whether that was more related to the loss of their three star players or the trial. Coaches and players will say the right thing, but no one will ever truly know.

The case was settled in April 2013, and Quinnipiac agreed to keep all of its current women's teams, add scholarships and improve facilities for its female athletes, according to a statement issued by the university.

In 2013-14, Fabbri was faced with another challenge. One year after her first NCAA Tournament bid, Quinnipiac jumped from the NEC to the MAAC.

“There was definitely a step up in competition (to the MAAC),” Adily Martucci ‘17 said. “I think there’s always going to be challenges when you are faced with teams you haven’t seen before. We were getting comfortable in the NEC.”

Martucci saw it all during her years. From her freshman year, the last in the NEC and the first in the NCAA Tournament, to her senior year and a Sweet 16 berth, Martucci likes to say she “joined the team at the perfect time.”

Martucci, along with Morgan Manz (‘17) and Carly Fabbri (‘18) (remember the 3-year-old at basketball camp?), helped bring the program to new heights.

Now, the Bobcats have been to three straight NCAA Tournaments and five of the last seven. It’s a dynasty by every definition of the word – there’s no way around it.

So with everything she’s achieved, what keeps Fabbri at Quinnipiac?

“I’ve had the opportunity to go and talk to the perceived bigger and power conferences. That’s been extremely interesting to go and do. But, just like recruiting, when you yourself are going and getting recruited, you find that the grass is never greener.”

Fabbri was a finalist for the Penn State job after last season, according to Blake DuDonis on High Post Hoops. Despite the reports, Fabbri insists she’s not interested in moving on.

“I’m really happy where my feet are and I still can make an impact within this program,” Fabbri said. “We can still achieve what I personally want to achieve. I really believe that second weekend (of the NCAA Tournament) is sitting there and I always like a challenge. It’s extremely difficult, but it’s also doable.”

If that’s the goal, then so be it. Fabbri holds the key to her future.

If she wants to use that key to make the drive north up I-95 for another 25 years, Quinnipiac will be better off.

But she’s earned the right to make that decision – whether she stays for life, or leaves tomorrow.