GREENSBORO, N.C. —- Justin Zawitoski needed to spend part of Friday with his parents, siblings and other relatives. He wanted to spend part of it with the people he’s worked with for the last four years.
A confluence of events following a sad development gives Maryland’s head team manager a chance to do just that.
His grandmother, Jean Zawitoski, died last week. The funeral was Friday morning outside of Baltimore, with the internment at 1 p.m. Maryland played at 7 p.m. Thursday in the ACC tournament, defeating N.C. State. That earned the Terrapins a quarterfinal date with Duke at 7 p.m. Friday.
“When I talked to her the last time, she said she was very proud of me,” Justin Zawitoski said. “She wanted me to be there doing my job stuff and not let any of this get in the way. That helped a little bit.”
Zawitoski, a senior communications major, joined the Terps as a freshman and gradually rose to his spot atop the manager pecking order. He’s often at Gary Williams’ side, slipping into press conferences, sitting on the bench and stalking the hallways along with the veteran coach. Like two other senior managers, he was honored Saturday during the team’s Senior Day festivities.
Yet a lot was going through his mind after a difficult week.
As he sat down for the meal before the Feb. 27 game at North Carolina, Zawitoski learned his grandmother broke her hip in a fall. She lived in Englewood, Fla., and Zawitoski was planning a trip to see her in a few months.
Instead, the prognosis wasn’t good. He returned with the team to College Park, then received another call shortly after practice on Feb. 28.
“My grandmother wanted to talk to everybody because they didn’t know how long she had,” Zawitoski said. “I was very grateful to talk to her about a lot of things and tell her I loved her and say goodbye, basically.”
By Tuesday, when Zawitoski was traveling to Miami for Maryland’s penultimate regular season game, his grandmother moved into hospice care. A day later, she died.
As arrangements were made, Zawitoski soon realized he had a problem. Maryland entered the final weekend assured of a place in the ACC tournament’s evening sessions with a victory over Virginia, but the Terps ran the risk of falling into the 8-9 game and playing at noon the first (and potentially the second) day of the event if they lost to the Cavaliers.
Zawitoski’s anxiety grew when Maryland stumbled, leaving the Terps’ seeding fate in the hands of Miami. The Hurricanes took an early lead in their regular-season finale at Georgia Tech, but faded in the second half to hand Maryland the No. 7 seed and a spot in the evening session the first two days of the tournament.
“I was sweating that one,” Zawitoski said. “Once that buzzer sounded, we called the airline and booked a ticket so I’d be able to make it both ways.”
It was a remarkable display of commitment from the senior, who hopes to work in college athletics after he graduates. The Terps (19-13) lost their last three regular-season games and need four wins in four days to make it to the NCAA tournament. Many fans have tuned out a team likely to end up in the NIT.
Not Zawitoski, not after being part of a variety of teams over the years.
“I think managers are unbelievable in general, but Justin’s been great,” Williams said. “I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the years, and he just cares. Those guys care as much as the players, and in some cases more. That’s what makes those guys special. A lot of those guys are really successful because most of those suckers are good students, so they learn discipline. They learn how it is to work for somebody. Then all the sudden they go into the job force, they’ve been there before.”
With the help of his family and Maryland, Zawitoski drew up a tight schedule contingent on the first item: “7 pm Thursday BEAT NC State.”
He and his mother stayed at a Greensboro hotel last night, and left at 4:45 a.m. to drive to Raleigh. A 7:05 a.m. flight took him back to Baltimore, with his grandmother’s funeral in Elkridge, Md., less than four hours later. After attending the burial, he was to arrive at BWI for a 3:30 p.m. flight back to Raleigh.
If all went right, he would land around 4:30 and hit the road by 5 to make the 70-mile drive to the Greensboro Coliseum. The final piece of the itinerary: “7 pm – BEAT DUKE.”
Zawitoski is grateful both his family and Maryland’s staff for making it work. But for the rest of the Terps’ program, his actions are particularly impressive.
“I think that’s his call,” Williams said. “That’s what he wants to do and I admire him for it.”
The payoff will come when he slips into the arena for what Zawitoski hopes is the second piece of a miracle run. He’s determined to finish his work with the Terps, and isn’t quite sure what things will be like when there isn’t a practice or workout or camp to get ready for. He knows that time is only weeks away, and doesn’t want to surrender any of the remaining experiences.
His final conversation with his grandmother only spurred him on to make sure he took care of both of the major responsibilities in his life, even if a crammed schedule ensures Friday will be one of the most hectic days of his life.
“I want to be there for tipoff,” Zawitoski said. “That would make everything worthwhile for the whole trip. I’m grateful to be able to be with my family and then get back to my second family. I didn’t want to miss it. We’ve been through a lot together and I wanted to be there.”
—- Patrick Stevens