Gomez embraces the challenge of replacing an NFA basketball coaching legend

Norwich — Courtney Gomez, the newly hired Norwich Free Academy girls' basketball coach, understands the daunting challenge of replacing a legend.

"It's like, what am I crazy?" Gomez said.

Far from it.

As a 2004 Norwich Free Academy graduate, former standout Wildcat player and assistant coach, Gomez knows exactly what she's signed on following Bill Scarlata, who announced his retirement in February after winning 576 games, 18 conference titles and seven CIAC Class LL state championships during his 27 years as head coach.

NFA officially announced the hiring of Gomez on Wednesday. She spoke about her new job during an informal press conference in athletic director Roy Wentworth's office.

"You really can't replace someone like that," Gomez said. "If I tried to go into this trying to live up to him, I think I would set myself up for failure. I certainly feel a tremendous amount of responsibility in trying to uphold the success that he's had here and the traditions that he's put in place.

"But, in the meantime, I also want to stay true to myself and develop my own identity as a head coach. Ultimately, it's really about providing the kids with an overall wonderful experience, not just as a basketball player but as a student-athlete here.

"I have so much respect for him and his career. And I know the kids know that and I know the community knows that. So, hopefully, I'll make him proud."

It was an easy choice for Wentworth, who made his first hire as athletic director.

"She's works well with our kids," Wentworth said. "She's worked at all levels. She's played at many levels as well and had success in everything that she does, so I think she's going to be a great fit for us. I'm pretty confident that I made the best choice possible."

Hard to argue with Wentworth.

Gomez bleeds Wildcat Red.

During her stellar NFA athletic career, Gomez competed in cross country, softball and basketball. She made her biggest impact on the court as a four-year starting point guard for Scarlata, helping the Wildcats win four Eastern Connecticut Conference titles and two state championships during undefeated seasons. She earned all-state honors twice.

After playing Division I college basketball at Hartford, Gomez spent two seasons with Scarlata as the junior varsity coach.

During that time, Gomez had a conversation with her mentor about eventually taking over the program but didn't know the timetable.

Gomez put that out of her mind and focused on becoming a better coach. She stepped out of her comfort zone to gain valuable experience and knowledge working as an assistant for the Connecticut College women's basketball program last season.

When Scarlata stepped down, Gomez jumped at the chance to lead the Wildcats. Gomez feels "very lucky to be able to coach a really great group of girls."

She'll juggle her new job with her full-time one as a physical therapist for Kindred at Home in Old Saybrook.

Gomez will continue to bend Scarlata's ear for advice. She learned a great deal from him as a player and coach that will come in handy.

"Probably the most significant thing I took and will continue to take from him moving forward is his ability to prepare," Gomez said. "He is probably the best scouter and game preparation coach I've known, whether that be high school or college. He really taught me how important it is to get out and see opponents, strategizing the game plan and preparing your players to get ready for that game.

"I think that's one of the most important things I'll take from him. And certainly I'll call on him in the future to help me scout a little bit and pick his brain about certain things that he would do."

Gomez also plans to use her father, longtime Lyman Memorial baseball coach Marty Gomez, as a resource.

She thinks it's funny that she surrounds herself with people who have been in the game for a really long time. She envisions coaching at NFA for the long haul.

"I hope so," Gomez said. "I really do. This is a dream come true for me. This is where I know I should be and where I want to be."

g.keefe@theday.com

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