Shortly before the Saint Peter's University Women's Basketball team played in the 2021 MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) Tournament at the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I had the opportunity to speak with head coach Marc Mitchell about the journey of coaching the Peacocks.
Named the MAAC Women's Basketball Co-Coach of the Year, Mitchell guided Saint Peter's to a 13-15 record, 10-9 in the MAAC, and 6-3 record at home while earning the number three seed in the MAAC Tournament. The Peacocks won their most games since the 2008-09 season.
Some of the significant milestone achievements for the Peacocks in the MAAC Tournament were reaching winning its first tournament game in 2015, reaching the semifinals for the first time since 2008, and advancing to the championship game for the first time since 2002.
After leading the team in scoring, assists, and steals, redshirt-senior Taiah Thornton was named to the 2021 All-MAAC First-Team. Redshirt-senior Kendrea Williams earned All-MAAC Third-Team honors, and freshman Ajia James a unanimous selection to the MAAC All-Rookie Team.
"We're really happy about where we are; it looks like we're going to be more consistent and the kids have been focusing and paying attention," Mitchell explained. "Obviously, it's a process, I have a certain mentality, and the way I think is a little outside of the box. It's a little bit old school, tough and hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it, and every player can't play for Coach Mitchell, and it takes a special kind of person to play for, and they have to come from a certain kind of family to play for me."
"Seeing the vision of the team, not the individual, so once we get that and the culture is as one and what we live and how we breathe. Everything is about togetherness, playing for your sister and not just playing for yourself. No selfish people are allowed in our locker room, in our program, and in our circle. It's a process to kind of get rid of all that stuff, keep an eye on the prize, and team success comes first."
Mitchell enjoyed immense success as the head coach of FDU_Florham for nine years. He became the program's all-time winningest coach with 187 wins, the Devils winning six straight Middle Atlantic Freedom Conference titles, six consecutive NCAA Division III tournament appearances.
Furthermore, FDU-Florham won 20 or more games every season. Mitchell led the Devils to an undefeated season at 33-0 in 2013-14 that ended with the program winning their first NCAA Division III Women's Basketball Championship.
However, Mitchell encountered significant growing pains in his first season coaching Saint Peter's as the team went 6-24, 1-17 in the MAAC, and endured a 10-game losing streak.
"I knew I was coming into a situation that was going to be difficult and challenging," Mitchell described. "Before me getting here, the program only won 19 games in five years, so I knew what I was getting into in that regard. I just knew that this is going to take me to get in the type of human beings I want in our program, and I think we're on the right track."
Thornton and Williams Followed Marc Mitchell to SPU
Recognizing the challenges ahead, the game-changer for Mitchell occurred when Thornton and Williams transferred from FDU-Florham to play for the Peacocks.
"Kendrea and Taiah both played for me as a freshman (FDU-Florham) and I've known Kendrea since she was nine-years-old," Mitchell noted. " Her older sister and my goddaughter are really good friends, and I have known the Williams family for a number of years."
Kendrea is a terrific basketball player, National Rookie of the Year at Division III her freshman year, and rookie year in the conference. She made 75 threes and then turned around in her sophomore year becoming Player of the Year and made over 100 threes. She just knew she could play at a major level. Taiah, a tremendous player in her own right, I think the best player in the league amongst so many great players in our league this year.
They just bring so much to the table with their leadership and their competitiveness. They're just wonderful people, and yet they know what the program is all about. I think that Taiah and Kendrea have laid the foundation of what we are, are about and what we're going to be and do a great job of doing that.
Ajia (James) is six foot one, the young lady can really ball well at all three levels, and her mid-range game is really good. I haven't seen a mid-range game like that in quite some time, particularly out of a freshman. She does a lot of little things, getting loose balls and rebounding the ball for us. Coming in with high expectations, she had some bumps along the road, but of late, it's all coming together for her."
With all the positive vibes during the 2020-21 season, Saint Peter's still ran into several obstacles. They faced issues with the COVID-19 pandemic and their home court, the Yanitelli Center underwent renovations which forced the Peacocks to play their home games at the John J. Moore Athletics and Fitness Center, on the campus of New Jersey City University.
"It's not easy at all," exclaimed Mitchell. "These are young people and the things that my players had to deal with on campus, I give a lot of credit to my players; we don't have a home gym and have to travel 15-20 minutes down the road to a high school to practice. We play our home games at NJCU, and we don't get to practice on game day. I'm saying to people, can you wrap your heads around that."
Despite these setbacks, Mitchell is very optimistic about the future of the program. "The younger ladies are coming along at the right time, we have four freshmen coming in next season, and they're going to be pretty dynamic in this league. Once they get their feet wet, the MAAC is going to be in for a surprise."
"The comments that I get from my colleagues, opposing coaches, officials that are officiating our games saying you're doing a great job, turning this program around and keep it up. This is different from a couple of years ago, it's just amazing to hear those things, and I'm very appreciative of it. I want to get the Peacocks name to resonate throughout the country as it was in the early 2000s when Coach (Mike) Granelli was coaching here, and everybody knows St. Peter's, and I want to get back to that."