Pictured: Jami Sacco is averaging 17.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.5 steals in 21 games entering the Class S tournament. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
WESTBROOK – Jami Sacco glows when asked to expound on her relationship with basketball and her Westbrook High teammates. She loves the game and the Knights equally and unconditionally.
“I feel in love with the sport. It’s really given me a lot of opportunities,” the do-everything senior guard said, a smile overtaking her face, following a regular-season home win in February.
It was never more apparent this season how much Sacco and her teammates appreciate each other and thrive together. The Knights are a proud program with tremendous history, and when all is said and done, Sacco will have a rightful place in it as the best player at one of the smallest schools in the state.
A varsity player these last four winters and a standout for the last three, Sacco scored her 1,000th career point – like her mother did four decades ago – in February. At the conclusion of the regular season last week, she was voted All-Shoreline First Team by the conference’s coaches for the second straight year. And Westbrook (9-12 overall) won enough to get back to the CIAC Class S tournament.
Sacco’s name and career point total will be noted on a banner recognizing other 1,000-point scorers in school history, but she said her career hasn’t been “just all about scoring points.”
“I think being on the banner, that’s an honor, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” she said. “I’m so thankful because they’re the most unselfish people. Since my sophomore year they were always looking for me (to score). I would not have gotten here without them.”
Sacco’s numbers measure up against any of the top Shoreline players this season – averages of 17.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.7 blocks in 21 games. Most, if not all, nights, she’s gone up against box-and-one or triangle-and-two defenses meant to drain her effectiveness in the offense.
“People think of Jami as a scorer, but she’s so much more than that,” said Sean Donadio, who is finishing up his first season as the Knights’ head coach and his only season with Sacco. “If you watch the games, she leads us in every statistical category – rebounding, steals, assists, deflections. She’s just an all-around player.
“And she’s not a natural point guard, she’s really a two-guard,” Donadio added, “but for us everything has to run through her. Everything. She has to handle the ball, she has to set up the offense, so that’s a lot on her. She’s a complete player and people sometimes miss that.”
Sacco’s basketball genes explain a lot. Her father Steve was a good player at Old Saybrook High School during future NBA player Vin Baker’s era in the late 1980s. Her mother Sue (Sue McKenna back in the day) was an 1,100-point scorer at Westbrook for legendary coach Pete Shuler at a time when the Knights were winning a state-record 62 straight games.
Jami is familiar with the family history in the sport from “the roaring ‘80s” (“Isn’t she funny?” Sue says), which made her journey this season all the more exciting. In fact, Shuler has been in the stands watching Sacco this season.
“My mother always made scrapbooks,” Sue said. “Our whole team is in a bunch of scrapbooks. I’m not sure if Jami has ever looked at them, but I’ve definitely her about those teams because we had such a special coach who really got Westbrook on the map. He really got something going. (Donadio) kind of reminds me of my coach, about you’re a team and a family, you stick up for your teammates, show good sportsmanship. That was all instilled in us. It’s nice to see it coming back.”
Jami credited her parents for building a positive basketball culture in the home and, with her mother by her side, feigned jealously that she “won a state title every single year” while playing for Shuler (Westbrook was the Class S champion between 1982 and 1987 and also was champion in 1978, ’79 and ‘89).
Jami and Sue are believed to be the first mother/daughter to score 1,000 points for the same high school.
“Mom has taught me pretty much everything I know, so thanks, Mom,” Jami said. “And I can’t leave my dad out. He was a great basketball player at Old Saybrook.”
An early opportunity to crack the 1,000-point mark on Feb. 2 didn’t go well. Feeling pressure from the home crowd, Sacco struggled to make shots against a very good Hale-Ray defensive gameplan and finished well under her scoring average. But the Knights won and that’s all that mattered to her.
Needing 11 points for 1,000, Sacco’s next chance came again at home the following week against Old Lyme. The basket that got her there starting with Sacco inbounding the ball under Westbrook’s basket to sophomore Leticia Pires in the corner. Pires tried to drive the baseline but lost her handle on the ball. Sacco recovered it, took a dribble to behind the 3-point line, turned and let it fly.
The game was paused to allow the Knights time to celebrate on the floor. Sacco was handed a commemorative ball from Donadio.
Another season highlight for Sacco? Being coached by Donadio.
“He doesn’t just work on one aspect of the game, and he really takes the time to work with each player to cultivate her skills,” she said. “That’s exactly what we need. We need somebody to work on every aspect of our game, because that’s what makes you win. He cares about us, how we are doing off the court and about us being good people. I’m really happy he came here.”
Donadio spent the past couple of years in the stands at Shoreline games watching his daughter, Catie, round into the Shoreline Player of the Year at Morgan. Like Sacco, Donadio was the players opponents spent 32 minutes trying to stop.
“It’s very hard being the player of focus game in and game out, like, hey, we need to stop her in order to win, and that’s not an easy job (for Sacco),” the coach said. “She does it with class, dignity, sportsmanship. I wish I had three more years of her. But it’s been so much fun to see what she can do out on the floor.”
Sacco said she had opportunities to continue to play in college at a Division III school, but she’s put her time and energy into a hopeful admission to UConn and choosing a major that will lead to a rewarding career.
“It just feels good, me being so lucky to be on this team and have the experience that I’ve had,” she said, “that I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”