Merrimack College head men’s basketball coach Joe Gallo and head women’s basketball coach Kelly Morrone occupy offices right next to each other in the Merrimack Athletics Complex. And during the months of November and December in 2022, the mood in that particular part of the hallway was somewhat discouraging.
Both teams, with tough non-conference schedules, found themselves with double digits in the loss column and just four wins collectively, three for the men’s team and one for the women’s team, respectively. But as tough as the first half of the season was, both teams masterminded significant turnarounds that catapulted them into the top echelons of the Northeast Conference.
In February, the Warriors collectively went 16-1, with both teams winning eight games in a row. The men extended that streak in the first round of the NEC tournament, where they are the top seed after clinching a second regular season championship in program history.
“We are playing the best in February and at the end of a year than any team I have ever coached,” said Gallo, now in his seventh season at Merrimack. “Back in the first half of the season, we knew as long as we kept this group together and didn’t have them lose confidence, we could turn things around.”
For the women’s team, eight consecutive wins is the longest streak since 2004, and has positioned the squad among the top four in the NEC and secured home court for the conference tournament quarterfinals. The players’ frustration to a 58-54 loss to Long Island University on Feb. 25 showed Morrone how they have matured over the season.
“They reacted to this loss in a really good way,” said Morrone. “It showed how much they want to do this for themselves, the community and the program. They’ve done a lot of firsts for the program and there is pride there.”
Despite the early losses, Morrone credits her assistant coaches with remaining committed to the process, and the leadership among her players for keeping the locker room together to allow the coaches to coach.
“We kept telling our captains ‘you have to stay with us,’” Morrone said. “We also reminded our players that we don’t know if the process is going to work until they do what we were asking. And eventually we started practicing the way we needed to, we saw results in game plan execution and in game results.”
Gallo too reminded his team early that a college basketball season is very long. At one point he sent his players photos of two signs that he passes by every day as he leaves his house. One says “Make today amazing” and the other says “I know how this story ends. Everything is going to be just fine.”
“When you look back on this season, especially if there is another tough non-conference schedule, you can point to it and say we stayed with it and you just want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season,” Gallo said.
Morrone also used an aspect of her personal life to motivate her players, at one point bringing in her chihuahua to a practice. It was that day she says when she felt a moment of relief for one of the first times during the season.
“They were happy and into the routine and totally locked in,” Morrone explained. “They didn’t need me and that is the best thing as a coach. When I felt their independence and confidence in themselves, that gives a coach a deep sense of relief. My ultimate goal is I want my players to be confident and carry themselves in a way that says ‘I am proud of myself, of what I am doing, of who my teammates are and of the program we are a part of.’”