In the early days of COVID-19, Jake Cerota, a 2017 Cherry Hill East graduate and Head Student Manager for Clemson men’s hoops, hatched the idea of helping student managers connect with their former counterparts currently in the basketball industry.
“The reason behind it was that the Final Four was cancelled, and that’s a huge networking event every year for all kinds of coaches,” Cerota explained during a conversation with the Sun on Oct. 25.
“That was going to be my first Final Four: It was only two hours away in Atlanta. Me and my friends were planning on getting a hotel and were intent on going to all the events to try and make connections.”
With in-person meetings scuttled, Cerota posted on the Rising Coaches network in search of something approximating that interpersonal dialogue. His first find was Ashton Pilz, a manager for the Kansas men’s program, who reached out about a potential collaboration. Together, they hosted their first call on Apr. 8.
“We started off as part of Rising Coaches, which hosts events for coaches who want to make moves within all the levels of basketball, which was started by Clemson grads,” Cerota revealed. “They gave me a Zoom channel and helped me kick off the platform.”
Pilz was the perfect complement to Cerota, with the latter acting as the idea man and the former possessing the practical tools to make the endeavor work. The Manager Connection was created and launched as a free one-on-one mentoring program that now boasts more than 200 participants.
Cerota is Cherry Hill through and through, having lived in the township his whole life, attending Woodcrest Elementary and Beck Middle School ahead of his time at East. He was a soccer and basketball player for the Cougars, and the path that led him to that secluded corner of South Carolina, and a school better known as a football powerhouse, began from another unlikely source.
“It actually started in basketball operations at the Katz JCC, where I’ve worked for a long time,” Cerota recalled. “Someone I knew there put me in contact with a person at Clemson, who in turn was connected enough to mention my name as interested, to the Tigers coaches.”
Cerota was rejected freshman year, but persistence paid off and he became part of the team a year later. Although Philadelphia has long been known as a cradle of talented players and coaches, it didn’t matter 675 miles away.
“I was the only manager from outside the state of South Carolina,” Cerota stated. “Everyone else had a solid connection with the Tigers’ staff. I knew that I really wanted it.
“Coaching basketball is always what I’ve wanted to do.”
Convincing his parents that a system of mutual aid for dedicated individuals who sacrifice for little pay and recognition was the right thing to do was another matter. Usually supportive, they believed helping so many other people might hurt his chances to find and keep a job.
“But I liken it to being Sam Hinkie: It’s always better to have the longest view in the room,” Cerota said. “And that’s what I’m thinking about in developing this thing.”
Once a week, a different speaker from within the basketball industry, most notably Jay Bilas from Duke University ESPN, will join the group for a chat lasting as long as 90 minutes, before a brief series of networking sessions gives way to general conversation. Like many Zoom calls of any nature during the first wave of the pandemic, nothing, including conversation subject and duration, was off limits.
“The calls often until 2 a.m., talking about anything and everything and getting to know each other,” Cerota noted. “These were total strangers before logging on, who knew things about each other you wouldn’t ever volunteer under normal circumstances.”
Life under quarantine for a college senior whose university welcomed a return of the student body has its familiar and unfamiliar modes.
As he spoke to the Sun, Cerota was helping the coaching staff prepare for the Tigers’ first game less than a month away. He was to take pictures for the upcoming season’s media guide later in the week. But he’s been limited to moving between a precious few locations.
“We’re here on campus, but all our classes are online. I’ve pretty much been only going back and forth between my dorm, my girlfriend’s dorm and the gym,” he offered.
“It’s my senior year, and I’d like to have something like a normal final year of college … whatever that means,”