For the Blue Streaks, both men and women, it was an uncomfortable couple days of waiting. But each of them got the call on Monday that their seasons would continue. For the women, it's their second bid in a row, while the men are back after four years on the outside.
Brian Lester catches up with both teams in a Road to Grand Rapids and a Road to Salem feature.
Men: Finally back in the dance
Mike Moran has been coaching at John Carroll for 23 seasons, winning more than 400 games along the way.
On Monday, he and his players watched the NCAA Division III selection show to see if the Blue Streaks would earn an at-large bid.
“It was a long wait,” Moran said. “I felt like I was in the French Revolution walking up to the guillotine. “But it was a great feeling to get in. I’m happy for our players.”
It is the Blue Streaks’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and the 13th in program history.
While Moran is happy he gets to coach at least one more week this season, he joked that being off this week wouldn’t have been such a bad thing either.
“When you get to my age, a vacation isn’t such a bad thing,” Moran said. “But seriously, I am glad we are back in it. The players had a goal this season to make it.”
JCU, which is 20-6 overall, will head to New Jersey for the opening round and battle Virginia Wesleyan on Friday at William Paterson.
The Marlins are in the tournament for the 11th consecutive season and were the runner-up in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament. They own a 23-5 record and are the ninth-ranked team in the nation.
Moran said preparing for an NCAA Tournament game is never easy because the turnaround is so quick, and most of the time, a team doesn’t know much about its opponent.
“It’s like a gunfight. You really don’t have time to think,” Moran said. “There isn’t anything new we are going to be able to teach the guys at this point. We’ll go out and prepare like we always do and if we play like we are capable of playing, we’ll have a chance to get a win.”
The Blue Streaks just missed out on a trip to the Ohio Athletic Conference tournament title game, falling 89-88 in overtime last week against Mount Union in the semifinal round at home. Still, JCU has played well over the last month, winning seven of eight, scoring 80 or more six times and reaching the century mark twice.
“The thing about this team is that we play well as a unit,” Moran said. “We have 12 guys who all contribute and they all understand their roles. I couldn’t ask for a better group to coach.”
David Linane has paved the way, averaging 12.3 points per outing. He has drilled 32 shots from beyond the arc and has dished out 132 assists. Linane has also gotten the job done on defense, racking up 52 steals.
Four other players average 10 or more per game, including Will Starks and Jake Hollinger. The two are both averaging 11.5 points per game. David Hendrickson (10.7) and Doug Caputo (10.3) have been steady contributors as well.
Hollinger leads the Blue Streaks in rebounding, grabbing 6.3 per game and he has also been a force on defense, blocking 45 shots. Hendrickson and Caputo have also played well defensively, racking up 43 and 32 steals, respectively.
The Blue Streaks are a high-scoring outfit, averaging nearly 89 points per game, and make about 10 3-pointers per contest. Starks (55 3-pointers), Hendrickson (49) and Danny Wallack (49) are the biggest outside threats.
“We shoot the ball well and we have a lot of guys who can step up and have a big game on any given night,” Moran said. “Our guys all play hard and bring their best effort every day. I expect the same thing this weekend.”
Hollinger and Hendrickson are the only seniors on the roster and their leadership has been instrumental to the Blue Streaks’ success.
“They are the guys who lead you into battle. They don’t stay in the background,” Moran said. “They lead through their actions and are both great competitors. The younger players definitely look up to them.”
Not only does JCU have strong senior leadership, but this is a team that also has the things you can’t coach.
“I love the character of our team,” Moran said. “When you look at us, we don’t have players that look like the prototype college athlete. But they play hard all of the time and are smart kids. It’s a fun group to coach.”
While there are no guarantees the season will last beyond Friday, Moran is confident his team will come ready to play and give its best shot to keep this season going and delay the vacation that Moran joked about during the interview.
“We’re going to have to shoot the ball well and take care of the basketball,” Moran said. “We also want to enjoy this opportunity. We’ll go out there and play our game and see what happens.”
Women: Waiting was the hardest part
Second-year John Carroll head coach Kelly Marrone doesn’t like waiting for something.
So when she and her team gathered Monday for the NCAA Division III selection show, Marrone nearly went crazy awaiting the Blue Streaks' postseason fate.
“I’m a person who likes things done yesterday,” Marrone said. “Waiting around is not in my wheelhouse. This year was different because the players had this as a goal. Last year, it was all new to them. The good thing is at least we weren’t the second-to-last name to pop up.”
Like her teammates, senior forward Meghan Weber was thrilled about the news of a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. But for Weber, the news was bittersweet. She won’t get to play in the tournament this week as her career came to an end nearly two months ago after breaking her ankle.
“I broke my ankle seven weeks ago and everything came to a halt,” said Weber, who was averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game before the injury. “It’s definitely hard, and some days are harder than others, because you want to be out there playing so badly.”
Still, Weber is happy for her teammates and is looking forward to the experience, even if it will be as a spectator.
“We all watched the selection show together and it was exciting knowing we made it back,” Weber said. “Our team has worked hard all year to put ourselves in this position. We want to be able to establish a national reputation like some of the other teams have out there.”
Weber, who said her biggest improvements over the course of her career have been her rebounding ability and play on defense, has learned to redefine her role after the injury.
“Now, I’m the biggest cheerleader and doing what I can to encourage the other players to do well,” Weber said. “You want to be out there playing because of everything you’ve put into the season, but I know I have a different role now. I help out the younger post players and give input if I see something that might make a difference.”
Marrone said even with the injury, Weber is still an important part of the team.
“She gave herself about 24 hours to wrap her head around it and then moved on,” Marrone said. “She told her teammates they also had to adjust and move forward. It was a great message by her. She’s handled everything with a lot of maturity and has never gotten down on herself."
The Blue Streaks did indeed move ahead are hoping to make the most of their opportunity in the NCAA tourney, which begins Friday with a game against Maryville on the campus of DePauw University in Indiana.
JCU is 22-4, the win total setting a record for wins in a regular season, is in the tourney for only the second time in program history and made it to the second round a season ago.
Marrone is hoping the experience of last year proves beneficial to the Blue Streaks, who face a Scots team that is 25-3 and the southern division champions of the USA South. Their win total is tied for the most in school history.
“They have a tradition of winning and when you watch them on film you can see that they are well-coached and have great offensive and defensive strategy,” Marrone said. “They also play well as a team.”
While losing Weber is tough, the Blue Streaks have other viable scoring options, including Kaitlyn Spahar, who is averaging 20.0 points per game. She is grabbing 6.9 rebounds per outing and has dished out 74 assists and tallied 70 steals.
Beth Switzler, pictured at the top of the page, is clicking for 12.5 points per game and is grabbing a team-best 9.7 rebounds. Emily Taylor is averaging 10.8 points per contest and has been tough from the outside, knocking down a team-high 46 3-pointers. Pryor Shmoo adds 8.7 points per game.
As a team, the Blue Streaks average 72.5 points per outing and allow 63.1.
“Teams have tried different ways to stop us, so we always prepare our team for everything they might face in a game,” Marrone said. “We have a lot of players capable of stepping up and our team does a great job of sharing the ball. The thing about this group of players is they don’t care who scores the points. They just want to win.”
Weber defines that unselfishness and team-first mentality and can’t say enough about the support she has received from her teammates during her difficult time.
“My teammates have been great and have always been there for me,” Weber said. “I would love to be out there playing with them but I’ll be there supporting them anyway I can.”
Marrone said Weber has made a big difference despite the injury. “She’s doing a lot to help us on the bench and she watches a lot of film,” Marrone said. “She wants to be a coach someday and so it’s a good experience for her. I know she’ll make a great coach in the future.”
As for the present, the Blue Streaks are ready to take their best shot at another tournament run. “You want to embrace the opportunity and not miss it because you are too anxious,” Marrone said. “We will prepare as we always do and put an emphasis on making sure we are firing on all cylinders. We have to stick with doing the things that got us here in the first place.”