The Lady Royals’ head basketball coach Mike Strong became the first Division III women’s basketball coach in history to win 800 games Jan. 11.
After the final buzzer went off, Strong gave a speech in front of the crowd gathered in the Long Center, which included more than 30 of his former players. In his speech he expressed his greatest thanks toward his former and current players. Looking back, Strong reflected on the day.
“It meant a great deal to me because a lot of the people that had helped us do this were in attendance. I just think everybody felt good about their contributions so it was a feel-good situation,” Strong said.
“I held myself together; I almost cracked there but I had satisfaction, gratification and relief that it was just done and we didn’t prolong the process,” he added.
Lady Royals defeated the Eagles of Juniata College 75-57. They were aware of the weight the game carried, but playing in such a big game did not create any nerves.
They were extra motivated because of their past with Juniata. Coming in, the Lady Royals had only won one of their previous seven meetings with the Lady Eagles.
“The history with Juniata has been a really tough rivalry. It’s been really tough to beat them on the road and at home,” senior guard Alison Sweeney said. “It was really a big game for us because it was our first big conference game. We hadn’t really been challenged in the conference up until then, so we were just super excited to play someone good and prove we’re back on track.”
Although the team was looking forward to playing in such an important game, Sweeney, who had 12 points in the victory, said they had no specific plan going into it, and there was little discussion about it before hand; Strong did not want to put any added pressure on the players.
Junior forward Meredith Mesaris led Scranton in scoring with 14 points. She said the team’s success so far this season is a result of positive attitudes from all the players and their willingness to support one another. The close-knit group of girls is easily motivated.
“We didn’t really need anything specific to get us going. We were so pumped up for Coach, for Juniata, and it was alumni day,” Mesaris said.
Mesaris also said the team’s primary focuses was to beat Juniata and to get Strong his 800th win.
“Juniata always has a tough team and they’ve always been one of our biggest competitors in the conference, so it was huge to have them for Coach’s 800th win. We just really came out with fire and made sure that we did it for him,” Mesaris said.
First-year forward Sarah Payonk led Scranton with five assists and seven rebounds in the win.
“It’s a really great feeling: the team is great and coach is great so being a part of such a great season and milestone for coach is really exciting,” Payonk said.
The Lady Royals relied on nothing more than its typical game plan in order to come away with the win. When Strong recognized the possibility of winning game number 800, he did not want to draw attention to himself or hype up the situation.
“We kind of knew after we won the two games in Florida that it was very possible to do it during alumni day. We didn’t put it up on the wall, we just attacked at Juniata as what they are – a league opponent, a very dangerous league opponent – so the girls were really pumped and everything worked out,” Strong said.
Relief, satisfaction and gratification were among the emotions Strong said he felt as the game drew to a close.
“The emotions started to swell within us. A couple kids were giving me high fives and thumbs up, then I got the nice warm applause and it just makes a person feel pretty good,” Strong said.
Strong is only the second ever NCAA Division III coach to reach 800 career victories and the tenth women’s basketball coach at any NCAA level to reach 800 career victories. Although he acknowledges his success, he does not take full credit for it.
“A lot of people have helped me toward this success. I know my name is on 800, but everybody else knows it’s a team effort with assistant coaches, trainers, administrators, staff and everybody else,” Strong said.
Contact the writer: