This is part of a series highlighting this year’s class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The 15-member class will be inducted Oct. 9. Tickets are available at GBSHOF.com.
Gina Castelli says she has two people to thank for getting her to where she is now: her cousin and Sister Maria Pares.
Castelli, the current women's basketball coach at Le Moyne and a 2018 Great Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame inductee, said it was her cousin that introduced her to the sport many years ago. When she was just a young girl, the two would go down to the basement and spend hours practicing together.
"He really helped me understand the dedication and hard work you need to put in to be really good at what you want to do," she said. "I would give him a lot of credit for my playing career."
She was a three-time All-Catholic basketball player at Archbishop Carroll and averaged 18 points per game as a senior. After being one of the area's best high school players during what was a golden era for growth in girls basketball in Western New York, she was a four-year letter winner for Canisius College under Pares, who died in 2017.
At the time of her graduation in 1986, Castelli was the second-leading scorer in program history with 1,524 points, had the most field goals in program history with 682, the top free-throw percentage with 82.9, most assists with 578 and recorded the most steals with 273. A point guard, she helped the program to 28 wins and a berth in the Elite Eight of the 1983 NCAA Division II championship as a freshman. She was named third-team All-American in 1984-85 as a junior.
In 1986, Pares accepted the head coaching job at Marquette and brought Castelli along with her to be her assistant.
"She was the one that literally pushed me into coaching," Castelli said. "That was the last thing I wanted to do. I was a shy kid and I didn’t like the limelight. I was thinking, ‘OMG, I’m going to have to talk in front of these girls. I don’t want to do this.’ But I went out there and I loved it."
Working with Pares as her assistant was a different feel than being her player, Castelli said. As a player, Castelli saw Pares as tough and demanding. As an assistant, Castelli saw a loving and caring side.
"Coaching you saw a different side of her," she said. "We were peers and it was nice to be able to spend some time just getting to know her as a person. She just did so much for me at Canisius and coaching-wise. I could never repay what she did to me."
After spending a year at Marquette, she moved on to Sienna College. After one year as an assistant, she was promoted to head coach at 27 years old and became the fourth-youngest coach in Division I. She spent 22 years with the Saints and became the winningest basketball coach in school history. Under her leadership, the Saints had a 336-296 record and made four postseason appearances. She was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year five times.
In 2013, Castelli wanted to move closer to home, so she reached out to Pares for advice. Soon, with the help of Pares, Castelli had a new job, this time as the head coach at Le Moyne.
She's now five years into her stint with the Dolphins, and loving every second.
"I love working with kids," she said. "I just really enjoy teaching and I just really love being on the court more than anything else. Seeing kids improve, I think that’s just really been the greatest reward. You learn a lot coaching, you go through your first years and think it's all about you and then, later on, you realize that nothing is about you. ... It’s a humbling profession. You think you have so much control over things, but you really have none."
Getting inducted into the Hall of Fame in her hometown is an honor unlike any other she has achieved, she said, and she's so thankful for the people that have helped her along the way.
"Honestly, it’s just so overwhelming," she said. "When I look back on my playing and coaching career and all the people, that's all I can think about. It’s an overwhelming feeling, all I think of is all the people that got me where I wanted in my playing career and in my coaching career."