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This story originally appeared in Onward: John Carroll Alumni Magazine, which was mailed in early November. Check your mailbox over the next few weeks to get your copy.

Read the full version of Onward.

In 2013, the JCU women’s basketball program lost five of their last six games, bowing out in the conference playoffs. Weeks later, they were looking for their next leader. To give the program a fresh start, John Carroll turned to a former South Carolina point guard with experience as a Division I assistant coach. 

“I really saw opportunity,” Kelly Morrone says. “After being on teams where we were the new staff, I understand that the transition for those kids can be really difficult. My main focus was on taking the right approach, forming relationships with them, keeping it simple. I was just excited to see what this could be.”

The Blue Streaks had won just 23 games since reaching the OAC tournament final in 2011. Morrone’s first squad won their first 11. Under her tutelage, the team ripped off 22 victories, not losing until the calendar flipped to 2014. 

I think change is scary, and it makes you prepare in a different way. We had the pieces there, and they were ready for it. After about the fourth or fifth game, they realized that they could do it … and they just got rolling.

The Blue Streaks rolled right into an OAC regular season title, the first in program history. They were riding high into the OAC Tournament, but exited in the semifinal round. Days later, Morrone was pulling athletes from their previously scheduled spring vacations because for the first time, JCU was headed to the dance. In Crestview Hills, Kentucky, they won their first NCAA game against Texas Lutheran before falling to host Thomas More.  

“I was excited that this happened in the first year, but it almost made things more difficult,” says Morrone. “For them, it’s suddenly, ‘we’re in the top-25. What? We have to do this again?’ It only makes it harder because you’re past the building blocks.”  

The next year, bolstered by upperclassmen leadership and career years from former role players, Morrone’s squad matched their 22-5 record, and earned a second consecutive NCAA berth. While the success had come early, there was still much work to be done; from fundraising, to building alumni connections, to developing a local network.

“It’s hard to repeat, especially after losing such big pieces,” Morrone admits. “We didn’t have the camps, the shootouts, the relationships with local and AAU coaches. We had spent so much time managing team relationships that we didn’t have the building blocks to be successful like we do now.”

The Blue Streaks had experienced two years of unprecedented success, but the real work was about to begin. Over the next three years, the Blue Streaks were led primarily by underclassmen, winning 13, eight, and seven games, respectively.

We really did it in reverse. Typically, you have a .500 year and then maybe step back once kids decide this isn’t for them. The loss of leadership from that second team is what allowed some of the previous culture to take over. It wasn’t necessarily a culture of winning, or chasing championships.

“Year five was tough in winning only eight games, but at the end of the year, everyone saw us coming,” says Morrone.  That hard work of finding the right recruits, including a team headlined by nine freshmen in 2017-18, paid off. The 2018-19 Blue Streaks went 22-6, winning the regular season OAC championship outright before taking the tournament championship at home on a buzzer-beater by Shmoo Pryor. It was the program’s third NCAA bid in six years.

How did the Blue Streaks pull off that rebuild? A top-down commitment to team building. “There’s no way we would have achieved what we did last season without the previous two years,” Morrone says. “We learned a lot, from what I expect as a coach, to what we’re looking for in recruits, to what kind of fit we’re looking for.”

Beyond the coaching staff, recruiting received a boost from an unlikely source: the team’s current roster. “Nature says that you wouldn’t want someone to come in who is better than you,” Morrone says. “Our kids said, ‘if they’re as good or better than us, we’re going to win.’ They were using their connections, they were at lunch when we had a recruit, they were invested.”

The investment in a core group has paid off, as seven players with 20+ games experience return in 2019. Morrone sees the year as an opportunity to showcase their growth.

We talk as a team: our goal now is to get out of that first (NCAA) pod. The tournament comes at the end of a long season, so how do you prepare differently so we can do something that’s never been done before at John Carroll?