First-year coach leads JCU to NCAAs

History has not been kind to the John Carroll women's basketball team.

Since first fielding a team for the 1970-71 season, John Carroll had only 17 winning seasons, but after making a coaching change following their fifth straight non-winning season within the Ohio Athletic Conference, the Blue Streaks now find themselves in unfamiliar territory, the NCAA Tournament.

Under the direction of first-year coach Kelly Morrone, the Blue Streaks went 21-4 overall and 15-3 in the OAC, and earned their first-ever invitation to the NCAA Division III National Tournament.

"It's exciting around here," said Morrone, who made the NCAA Tournament as a player at the University of South Carolina.

"They know the perception of John Carroll. We're a private school with a great academic reputation, but our athletes are blue-collar athletes. They fight for everything. They're playing for the right reasons. They have pride in representing themselves, their teammates, their coaches, the school."

Although Morrone has received attention for the turnaround at John Carroll, she is quick to credit the play of Melissa Spahar, who was selected as the OAC Women's Player of the Year after averaging 25.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and her younger sister, Katlyn, who earned Freshman of the Year honors by averaging 13.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

"I'm thrilled that I was sitting in this chair and was able to be directing this group," Morrone said. "They're just really special, special players, and it doesn't always happen that way when you have a transition that you have such talent when you walk in. I'm excited.

"My staff truly works hard and they do anything I ask of them. A fantastic group of people came together at the right time with the right chemistry. Sometimes, it's not anything technical as much as it is a special group of people coming together."

While Morrone and the Blue Streaks had an entire season in front of them, she knew early on that the team had everything it took to have a special season.

"I knew the culture was there because the captains were getting them together when we couldn't be around to make sure they were lifting and conditioning and playing open gym," Morrone said. "When that stuff is taken care of and a staff can just focus on basketball, they're already eliminating a lot of variables.

"They were anxious to learn, embrace the new system that they just found success with. The staff was really excited with the pieces that were there. We came up with an offensive and defensive scheme that would work and were just off to the races."

The Blue Streaks have proven to embrace more than those new systems Morrone instituted at the start of the year. According to their coach, they are a group of fighters who are willing to work through any challenge that comes their way.

"We've battled a lot," Morrone said. "This team won 14 games last year and had been unsuccessful against the typical top teams in this conference and they had to shake that monkey off their back.

"Once they saw they could get them, then, we had to go to Wilmington and get ourselves down 22 at one point and climb back in. We've had to take cabs to the Ithaca game because our bus broke down. They've been through quite a bit."

The battles will continue for the Blue Streaks as they travel to Kentucky to play Texas Lutheran (23-5) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Waiting for them on the other side of the bracket could be the No. 1 team in the nation, Thomas More College.

"You've just got to play," Morrone said. "That's the biggest thing about these tournaments. There's so much else out of your control. You've got to love the fact that you're in it and just gut out every game. I like the matchup of us vs. Texas Lutheran. I believe it's the first time they won the conference championship as well, so that's a great story in the making for two teams just now getting here will battle it out in the first round.

"There's a dominating team in Thomas More. Thomas More is obviously the favorite. It's at their home. They've got the No. 1 scorer in the country on their team, but we have the No. 3 and a pretty good supporting cast too. I'm just looking forward to some good basketball."


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