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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

The story of John Carroll athletics in the 2010s is rich with tales of competitive success. In that decade, one coach led two of the most prolific programs, neither of which teams have competed on campus during his tenure. 

Before Shaun Keenan took over the John Carroll men’s and women’s tennis programs in 2010, the Blue Streaks were in need of a reboot. JCU had recorded 13 total OAC championships since rejoining the conference in 1989-90. However, the teams were struggling to compete following a clean sweep of the OAC in 2006. 

When Keenan was hired, some of the players were on their third coach at John Carroll. Born in New Zealand and raised in Perth, Australia, Keenan played at Wichita State University and did his graduate assistant work at the University of Louisiana. He had a taste of coaching at Louisiana, and was looking for an opportunity to focus more on coaching than teaching. 

We barely had six kids on either team at JCU. I had to ask kids if they knew anyone who played. Their head coach had left, and it was a challenge. We had talent, but no depth, discipline, or direction. It took time for me to recruit to build enough depth to be competitive.

“We were in the middle of the conference and things got progressively better. We didn’t (and don’t) have facilities or indoor courts. It was also an older team, so we were really short the first few years.” 

The two keys to the rebuild were time and winning. Keenan sought to recruit local players who simply loved the game. That was the first step in resetting the culture: build depth through players who enjoyed playing tennis and wanted to improve. “I was fortunate to work in the area for a long time,” Keenan says. “I was heavily involved, I knew a lot of the kids, and I ran 10-15 tournaments a year. We got lucky getting good kids in there, and after a few years the word got out. ‘They’re winning, the coach cares, they’re having fun.’ It made it a little easier to find the right recruits.” 

The years of hard work in recruiting paid off in 2014-15, when the men’s team won their first OAC men’s title since 2006 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. 

The team had great leaders in Jad Abdul-Aal and Nick Siciliano. Those guys are highly motivated kids who don’t like to lose, they get good grades, love tennis and the competition, and fed the atmosphere. The team was having a great time.

One year later, the men repeated and the women won their first title under Keenan. It was the first of what would be four straight sweeps for the tennis program. The women were led by a duo at #1 and #2 singles: Lauren O’Malley (22-1) and Madisyn Rini (14-5). The pairing went 16-4 in doubles matches. As the titles piled up, and the teams began to win NCAA matchups, Keenan wanted to push them harder. He scheduled grueling spring break schedules, which left the Blue Streaks with poor records, but better preparedness, heading into conference play. 

“We forced longer points against quality opponents, and it led to better tennis in the long run,” Keenan says. “We’re 1-8, 2-9 going into conference, and teams in Florida beat up on us. The kids got into it and loved the competition, but they typically weren’t happy with me leaving break because of the record.” 

The Blue Streaks built confidence through the losses, and took it out on the conference during the nearly unprecedented run. In 2018-19, JCU became the first team in the 34-year history of the OAC women's tennis championships to win four consecutive titles. The men’s team became the first in 35 years to win five consecutive OAC championships; if they win a sixth in 2019-20, they will tie Denison’s mark from 1979-84. 

O’Malley graduated in 2019 as one of the most accomplished athletes in JCU history, racking up 110 singles wins and 70 doubles wins. She capped off her NCAA quarterfinal appearance as a senior by earning Academic All-America honors. The teams went through their championship runs, and O’Malley chased an NCAA title individually, without competitive courts on campus. 

The Blue Streaks currently must travel to local clubs or to Cleveland State in order to compete. JCU hopes to change that with the Home Court Campaign, which will build six courts and a pavilion for the tennis programs, allowing them to compete on campus and host tournaments. Keenan hopes that the example of O’Malley and the leaders on both teams leads to stronger tennis in the future. 

We want the kids to get better and have a good time. We want the players to get better every year. The goal never changes. We want Division I caliber players to look at John Carroll and say, ‘I like the team and what the academics can do for me.’ We want those academically motivated team players. It’s fun to watch those players develop.

John Carroll men’s and women’s tennis started fall play in September.