Wanda Szeremeta ’80 didn’t plan on earning her college degree at Montclair, but then Szeremeta can point to a lot of things in her life that didn’t go as planned.
Szeremeta had just completed two years of study – and college basketball – at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, when tragedy struck. Her parents and younger sister were in an auto accident. Sadly, her sister did not survive. Her parents were badly injured.
“I had to come home to New Jersey,” she says. “Dad was hospitalized for an extended time and I needed to care for my mom.”
Despite the circumstances, Szeremeta’s mother was determined to see her daughter make progress toward a college degree. “It made sense for me to find a local option,” Szeremeta says, “I wanted to be a teacher and I knew that Montclair was the place in New Jersey to study teaching.”
Szeremeta may have given up a basketball scholarship when she transferred to Montclair, but she had no intention of giving up the game. “When I got to campus I headed straight for tryouts,” she says with a laugh.
Little did she know that she was about to join her new teammates in making Montclair history. As a member of the 1977-78 Women’s Basketball team, led by Head Coach Maureen Wendelken ’61 ’69 MA, Assistant Coach Charlie DiPaolo, and team Captain Carol (“Blaze”) Blazejowski ’78, Szeremeta helped the Red Hawks reach the Final Four. After defeating Wayland Baptist 90-88 in the third-place contest the team fell to UCLA in the national semifinals.
“It was such a special team, and a special season,” Szeremeta recalls. “We were putting Montclair on the map. We filled the stands and had statewide press at our games.”
“We were just kids from New Jersey and the surrounding areas who loved basketball and wanted to play,” she says. “And we were good. We started the season playing highly ranked teams, which gave us a taste of what we would have to do to get to the Final Four. We felt like pioneers.”
Szeremeta’s Montclair years were full. “My parents required a lot of care during my first year at the University, and I had a full course load as well as my basketball schedule,” she says. The challenges increased when she was drafted as one of the original members of the New Jersey Gems, a Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) team.
“I hadn’t yet finished my degree,” she says. “Now I had to balance studying with playing professionally!”
Szeremeta completed her degree in physical education, became a credentialed teacher and continued as a player – and team captain – for the Gems. The WBL lasted only three seasons, but by now she was immersed in the world of women’s basketball.
“After the WBL, I coached a team in Venezuela, and then returned to the U.S. to coach collegiately and in the WNBA and to try my hand at being an agent,” she says. “I also refereed for 20 years, including 10 NCAA tournaments.”
More than 20 years after graduating from Montclair, Szeremeta returned to her original plan to teach. “After years of traveling I decided it was time to have some stability in my life,” she says. “I applied to the Los Angeles Unified School District and was hired on the spot. I worked in South/Central LA as a teacher and athletic director. It was wonderful.”
After a successful teaching career, Szeremeta retired – but she didn’t stay on the sidelines for long. After a 20-year career officiating Division I basketball, “An opportunity came up to serve as the West Coast Regional Advisor for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Program,” she says. “I travel the country observing and screening officials for the tournaments.”
So much time on the road for the NCAA makes it difficult for Szeremeta to visit her alma mater, but she keeps up with Red Hawk news, following the Women’s Basketball team in particular. “It has always been a successful program and the players are great,” she notes.
In 2022, the 1977-78 Montclair Women’s Basketball team was among the first to be inducted into a new New Jersey Basketball Hall of Honor. The Hall of Honor was the brainchild of Montclair alumnus and one-time basketball coach Fred Hill, Jr. ’81, as a way to recognize New Jersey’s players, coaches and fans.
“It was so exciting and such an honor,” Szeremeta says of the Hall of Honor recognition. “Being involved with the Montclair Women’s Basketball team made me the woman I am today.”
“It isn’t easy being a student athlete,” she observes. “That’s why it is so important for student athletes to embrace each day because these experiences are formative. What you experience, and what you learn, will stay with you for the rest of your life.”