UGA Football

How Kirby Smart helped land one of the state’s top women’s basketball prospects

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart salutes the fans after the Bulldogs' 42-7 win over Florida during the 2017 season.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart salutes the fans after the Bulldogs' 42-7 win over Florida during the 2017 season. The Telegraph

Jenna Staiti's family thought it was a big deal to catch a Georgia football practice inside Sanford Stadium. It was something the former five-star post prospect, who was previously at Maryland, was looking forward to when she found out it would be a part of her official visit last spring.

But Staiti figured it would be a simple affair. She and her family would show up, watch practice and move on with the rest of the visit. On the field that day, she had no idea what was about to come next.

While observing, Staiti heard some familiar music blaring over the loudspeaker. She was asked days prior to making the trip to Athens what her favorite songs were, and it was now coming together.

“Something Just Like This,” a 2017 pop hit by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay, brought a smile to her face. Another one of her favorites, which Staiti couldn’t recall, followed.

“Do you like that music?” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart asked Staiti, who stood alongside her parents, Sandi and Jim, and her 11-year-old sister Jillian. Lady Bulldogs’ head coach Joni Taylor and her assistants were standing there, too. Taylor was shocked Smart was willing to play Jenna's selected songs.

Smart engaged in a full-on conversation with Jenna and her accompanying party, ranging from a chat about music to discussing the recruitment of fellow West Forsyth product Ben Bresnahan, who the Bulldogs were recruiting at the time. Not only was it ecstatic for Jenna to talk about football recruiting, but it just so happens that her best friend, Meredith Bresnahan, is Ben’s sister.

Staiti family.JPG
Jim Staiti (left), Jenna Staiti (back middle), Sandi Staiti (right) and Jillian Staiti (front middle) pose for a photo. Courtesy of Georgia Basketball

At the same time, Sandi was in conversation with Taylor about life away from basketball. After not seeing that emphasis while a member of the Terrapins, it was something the Staitis could have never imagined.

“He was so awesome and I couldn’t believe he knew who my best friend was,” Jenna said. “I had heard so much about him and I was just so star struck talking to him.

Added Meredith, who recalled hearing the stories after the official visit: “She was arm’s distance away from (former Georgia quarterback) Jacob Eason. She was trying not to fan girl.”

Smart has built a strong rapport with Taylor since taking the football head coaching job. He holds a connection to the women’s basketball program with his wife, the former Mary Beth Lycett, who played under former head coach Andy Landers from 1999-2003. His message was clear and echoed Taylor’s, who sent an enthusiastic text to Jenna with dog paw emojis after she was released from Maryland: “We need you back in your home state. That’s where you belong and we can’t let the top talent leave the state of Georgia.”

Jenna fit the term “top talent,” as she was a five-star prospect according to the ESPN HoopGurlz’ recruiting rankings. She was once a nationally ranked swimmer growing up, but was swayed to play basketball in the eighth grade and fell in love with the sport. Jenna had her first scholarship offer only a year later. As a senior at West Forsyth, she averaged 26.2 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.

Smart and Taylor have conversations frequently for encouragement and motivation, and he was sure to give an extra effort to help in this instance. It was Smart’s idea to play music and make the Staiti family his priority that Saturday afternoon.

“I love it. Joni’s done a lot of (asking me to help),” Smart said. “I don’t know whether I help any or not, but my love for Georgia and my wife’s experience, I really enjoy that. I just love, especially the ones from the state of Georgia, that I know their coaches and I have a tie, too. I think when the recruit loves football, it’s a great sell. Now when they don’t care anything about that, it’s tough. I really enjoy doing that because I think we’re all in this together. I love the fact that our other sports are doing really well now.”

While the Smart visit was one of the highlights, Jenna also saw a true “family feel” – something that didn’t come to fruition at Maryland – and built a close bond with her visit co-host Mackenzie Engram, who would go on to be her roommate.

Even Jillian, who didn’t know who Smart was at first, saw Georgia as a fit for her big sister. After telling stories to her male friends who are football fans, they were stunned she got to meet the Bulldogs’ big-name head coach. To make it even sweeter for someone who got to tag along, the Staitis went to a trampoline park with Engram, Bianca Blanaru and the coaches, and everyone knew Georgia was probably Jenna's next destination.

“We went to the (Rush) trampoline park and Mackenzie had my back when we were playing dodge ball,” Jillian said. “I even twisted my ankle at one point, and she was there to comfort me and help me get back up. It hurt a lot.”

Jenna saw everything she wanted to see but told Taylor on a car ride that she wanted to take a cautious approach and go through the recruiting process – something she didn’t do while making the Maryland decision. So, she took trips to Arkansas and Florida while knowing she had a spot with the Lady Bulldogs. The other schools didn’t compare.

She went back to Georgia’s campus a few weeks later with her AAU coach Matt Huddleston and watched television in the team locker room with Taylor and the players. Jenna glanced back at Taylor and Huddleston and the Lady Bulldogs’ head coach thought, “This could be really good or really bad.”

Then the good news broke.

Typical of Taylor’s reactions, she let out a yell and danced around with her arms in the air. Georgia had done it, bringing one of its top in-state talents back. After sitting out the past season due to NCAA transfer rules, Jenna will take the Stegeman Coliseum floor for the first time in November.

“Kirby is accessible and he genuinely cares,” Taylor said. “He knows how to make connections and I really think it continued to confirm for their family that this was going to be a good fit for her – not only inside this office, but people away from it as well that were going to be genuinely invested in her.”

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