Danielle Bernini sat on the bench, saddled with foul trouble, and patiently waited to get back into the district playoff game.

Instead of simmering, consumed by the frustration of missing part of the season's biggest game, the Mount Carmel center was immersed in the action.

She watched things unfold on the court, picked up tips while sidelined, mental notes that could help her and her teammates later in the game.

That likely wouldn't have been the case, Bernini admitted recently, if she had been isolated on the bench, eyes to the floor, drowning her sorrow in Gatorade.

Because in the game against Towanda last year, Bernini, then a junior, didn't simply make a beeline to a random seat after incurring her third foul in the first half.

She parked it in a chair right next to head coach Lisa Varano, the one left vacant on Mount Carmel's bench each game.

"It felt good to be next to her, knowing she wanted me in there, and listening to her, hearing what she thinks of how we're playing," Bernini recalled. "I got a good idea of what we were doing and what I could do to help us toward the end of the game."

Never mind the Red Tornadoes ultimately lost the game. Focus on Bernini's mind-set, that she didn't become a casualty of the benching.

It isn't a symbolic gesture or a tribute, such as UCLA keeping legendary coach John Wooden's seat in Pauley Pavilion vacant.

The fact is it's just an empty seat between Varano and assistant coach Frank Bolick.

In truth, it's so much more.

"When we took over, (Frank) and I decided we wanted to leave that seat open," Varano said after a recent game. "Some girls don't come to it ­-- we don't make them come to it. If they come out of a game because they're turning the ball over or they're not where they're supposed to be on defense, it's an opportunity for either myself or my assistant to talk to them.

"And I think they're pretty comfortable with that."

Varano was promoted from assistant coach in the midst of last basketball season when former coach Mark Moyer resigned for personal reasons. In October, Moyer was charged with having unlawful contact with a 16-year-old female.

The Red Tornadoes are 16-5 with a state playoff appearance under Varano. They're currently tied atop the HAC-II standings.

Last week, in a key division game, Mount Carmel got off to a horrendous start and trailed Warrior Run by 11 early in the second quarter.

The vacant seat wasn't empty very often, but more like a revolving door of disconcerted players.

At one point, Bolick, a former major league infielder, grabbed a whiteboard to illustrate his instruction for his daughter, junior guard Heather Bolick.

"I just kinda sit there and he kinda talks to me and helps me out," Heather Bolick explained. "I definitely feel like our coaches help us. They talk to us (there), tell us what we're doing wrong or what we can do better."

What makes the concept work is the girls don't view it as a walk to the electric chair.

We've seen coaches so distressed by a kid's performance that they'll instruct their assistants to "slide down" so they can have an, ahem, talk with the player.

The Red Tornadoes, though, aren't intimidated by the prospect of sitting between their coaches.

"They rarely get an earful; that's not really our style. We're not yellers; the girls don't respond to that. They do respond, I think, when there's a mutual respect," said Varano. "We kinda have always been with the philosophy that girls make mistakes and they have to learn from them. So we use that more as a teaching tool."

"I don't dread it because it's not done in a negative way. She knows we're going to have bad moments, obviously, but it's always handled in a positive manner," said Bernini. "It tells me that she really cares, making sure you're always in the game, watching it, and making sure to tell you what you did wrong and what you did right and what you need to do when you go back out there.

"It helps motivation-wise, knowing she wants you back in there."

Which brings us to a point that's probably lost on many coaches. When players are yanked from a game for whatever reason (foul trouble, erratic play, lack of hustle, etc.), it's not a bad idea to open a quick dialogue.

Even if it's a reprimand ("We said four passes before a shot!"), a player might have something on his or her mind. At the very least, they'd likely appreciate the assurance they'll be going back into the game.

"(The empty seat) is definitely unique. Other coaches I've had, a lot of times you'll come out and people will move down, or you'll just go to the end of the bench and feel like you're not needed anymore," said Bernini. "Sometimes you just need that breather, like when you have those fouls, to tell them how frustrated you are. You don't want to keep that in and have it affect your whole game."

— Scott Dudinskie covers girls basketball for The Daily Item. Email comments to sdudinskie@dailyitem.com.

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