A basketball legend reaches 500 wins

WASHINGTON — “Everybody thinks it’s about winning. It really isn’t.”

That may seem like a funny sentiment coming from a coach who has just notched her 500th career victory for Sidwell Friends High School. But Anne Renninger has a perspective on, and history with, the game of basketball that few others share.

It was 33 years ago Thursday that Renninger earned her first victory as a high school coach, in her second game guiding the Quakers. She might have been very surprised then to to learn she’d still be at Sidwell all these years later, but it was arguably even more surprising that Renninger ever ended up there in the first place.

Renninger starred at the University of Maryland, where she played on some great teams at the exact time women’s basketball began getting attention on a larger scale. She played in the first-ever nationally televised women’s college game, against Immaculata in 1975, back when the refs were still wearing skirts instead of shorts.

After graduation, Renninger went straight into coaching, where she became the youngest college coach in the nation, edging out legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit. She began her career at George Washington, starting the women’s program from scratch.

“All I ever did was want to be was a basketball coach,” she says from her office at Sidwell, a glass cube full of photos and trophies from a lifetime of achievement. “I had to knock on dorm doors, offering scholarships. I was coaching people who were older than me.”

Renninger went back to school to earn her master’s degree, then went on to coach at William & Mary before returning to her alma mater as an assistant. But a turbulent time in the program’s history left her looking for the next step in her career, weighing professional options against her personal obligations.

One of the main reasons Renninger had returned to Maryland was the passing of her father. She was offered the job at UC Santa Barbara. But she lived in Chevy Chase, was dating her fiancée (now husband) and wanted to stay there. One of her teammates at Maryland had student-taught at Sidwell, and encouraged her to apply. She was offered the gig while she waited for other opportunities, and decided to take a chance.

“I said, ‘You know what; I’m just going to take the Sidwell job,’ not really knowing what to expect at all.”

It’s hard to think she could have expected this.

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Renninger talks to her team during a timeout in the first quarter of a game against Roosevelt. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

“I’m missing three of my five starters tonight,” Renninger says as she rounds up her team for warmups before the first game of last weekend’s tournament at the school.

The second thing she says: “This is going to be a blowout.”

The latter statement comes about five minutes after the former, the temporal gap significant. She’s had time to watch the teams warm up, and it’s painfully clear that even with three starters gone, even with four of the nine dressed Sidwell players less than a full semester out of middle school, they are going to blow the doors off of Roosevelt.

While the Quakers practice well-integrated layup lines and sets without any coaching needed, the Roosevelt struggles to run basic pass lines and miss most of their warmup free throws.

Roosevelt’s first four passes in the offensive zone are picked off, sent back the other way and converted into layups. Four possessions, eight fast-break points the other way.

In a game of eight-minute quarters, we reach the 4:08 mark before the Roughriders get off their first shot, an errant 3 off the window. For a good while, it appears they may get shut out.

It’s not always this easy. After nearly 40 years of coaching, Renninger knows this well. That’s why, even though her team leads 26-0 after one quarter, her focus is on a missed opportunity with 10 seconds left, in which the final offensive set failed to produce a shot. They’ll need that shot one of these days.

In fact, the very next day, Sidwell rides a late rally to come from behind to beat Stone Ridge School, 48-43, to improve to 3-0 on the season.

As coaches advance in their careers professionally, becoming administrators, sometimes they can lose that fire, that day-to-day attention and involvement in the program that differentiates good from great. Renninger took on the athletic director’s duties at Sidwell years ago, but has maintained her focus on the program, coaching not just the high school girls but the middle school team as well, up until this year.

The program grew under her tutelage, and really took off over a 10-year stretch beginning in 1992, when she won her first championship. Renninger’s success has not been reliant upon the best athletes, or any particular scheme or system that confuses and disrupts opponents. That familiarity with her players before they ever arrive has allowed her to create continuity. So when she lacked starters, she didn’t see it as having four freshmen on the floor.

“That was my eighth-grade team that was undefeated last year,” she explains.

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Banners hang high in the rafters above the Sidwell home court, celebrating Renninger’s accomplishments.

Renninger isn’t the type to make a big deal over an arbitrary, round number like 500 wins. As such, the process of getting to that landmark victory became a much bigger deal than she would have ever liked.

“I didn’t really think about it at all,” she says, explaining that she received an email last year from ESPN, asking for her career record and highlights. “I figured sure, yeah, whatever.”

After going through the records, she realized the approaching milestone. As the season progressed, her win total reached 499 with 10 games left on the schedule.

“We were going to win one of those games for sure,” she says.

Then, suddenly, the wheels fell off.

“We couldn’t beat anybody; it was just a nightmare,” she recalls. “So then we got to this game that we knew we were going to win. People brought flowers, bought cakes. It snowed.”

The Quakers finished the regular season with Renninger still sitting on 499. Despite their lackluster record, they were picked for the state tournament. They played Ballou in the first round, and lost again.

“It was kind of tough, but the kids were great,” Renninger says. “They felt so bad.”

A fellow teacher had bought a cake in anticipation of number 500. When it didn’t happen, he did it again, then again. In all, he bought seven cakes.

“Because we didn’t get it done, it kind of got more momentum; it kind of built up,” she explains. “But it’s all worked out fine. It’s been nice.”

After the landmark win finally came, in this season’s opener against Baltimore Friends, congratulations came pouring in from former players of every generation. Parents of players from last year’s team even came back for the game, to be there with the coach. For Renninger, that was easily the best part of the whole achievement.

“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “One hundred percent. …

“That will be the hardest thing, when my career ends — how to not have those relationships,” she says. “It’s all about the relationships. You do it because of the people involved.”

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