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Mary Sheehan carries on St. Joe's family legacy

07/09/2021, 2:45pm EDT
By Christy Selagy

Christy Selagy (@ChristySelagy)

Saying St. Joe’s graduate student and guard Mary Sheehan has been around Hawks basketball since the moment she was born is probably an exaggeration. But only a small one.

Mary Sheehan dribbles a basketball

Mary Sheehan (above) has been immersed in St. Joe's culture her entire life. (Photo: Sideline Photos, LLC)

Her parents, Dennis Sheehan and Eileen Sheehan (nee O’Grady) both graduated from St. Joe’s in 1985, have held season tickets for the men’s games since their graduation, and are involved in a variety of alumni events. Dennis was the Hawk mascot for the men’s basketball team for three seasons as a student and went on to serve as the alumni association president.

Mary Sheehan has been going to men’s and women’s basketball games on Hawk Hill for as long as she can remember. For years, she’d sit on her parents’ lap for all of the men’s and five or six of the women’s home games every season.

“We had two season tickets,” the former Cardinal O'Hara standout said. “I’ll always know it, section 204, row two, seats one and two, and then, eventually, when I was like 10, I think, we added the third seat for me. And I was a tall 10 year old, so definitely was a little bit late to be adding that third seat.”

It wasn’t just Sheehan’s parents’—Dennis’ father, four of Dennis’ six siblings, and two of Eileen’s four siblings are also St. Joe’s alumni. Eileen’s father, Buddy O’Grady played for and coached at Georgetown, another Jesuit university. The shared Jesuit tradition and proximity was enough to get the family to start following the Hawks when Eileen was growing up in the Philly area.

If you’re at a family reunion, chances are pretty good someone’s wearing St. Joe’s gear.

“I think for Dennis’ family and for mine, it’s been a really happy place,” Eileen said. “It’s been an influential place across all of our lives and we have great memories from it. Just to see Mary forge her own path and create her own memories, I think she’s really done that. That’s really rewarding to see.”

Mary Sheehan’s first memory of Hawks basketball came when she was about four years old: the men’s basketball team’s Elite Eight game against Oklahoma State in 2004. It was the culmination of the best season in program history, after then-head coach Phil Martelli and future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the team to an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 seed in March Madness.

St. Joe’s lost that Elite Eight game by two points, and the moment the Hawks lost is just about the only thing Sheehan can remember. Well, that and Oklahoma State’s cowboy mascot running around.

A few months later, she attended her first basketball camp hosted by women’s head coach Cindy Griffin. Sheehan was at those camps every year after that—she had a lot of energy, won a few contests over the years, and was always wearing St. Joe’s gear, Griffin remembers.

Sheehan grew up living and breathing St. Joe’s. So, when her four years on the women’s team came to an end, it was bittersweet. But not for long, thanks to the NCAA’s COVID waiver granting an extra year of eligibility. Returning for that final season wasn’t much of a question for Sheehan.

She’s always been a Hawk. She comes from a family of Hawks. Of course she’d be coming back.

“I love this place so much, and if I have the opportunity to spend more time being around my teammates and the staff and being at this place and trying to better it and better myself, why not take it?” Sheehan said. “I just want to help my teammates and coaches to do anything we can to win the season and go out on a high note [...] and try to leave this place better than I found it when I came in as a freshman.”

As deep as Sheehan’s devotion to the program is, she wasn’t always convinced she’d be playing college ball on Hawk Hill. Early in her recruitment, she told teammates, coaches, and friends she wanted to go somewhere else, forge her own path, since she'd been around St. Joe’s for so long.

Mary Sheehan shoots a basketball

Mary Sheehan (above) had career best numbers across the board in the 2019-20 season, her first as a team co-captain. (Photo: Sideline Photos, LLC)

If you think that’s hard to believe, you’re not alone. It almost became a running joke on all her college visits—did Duquesne, Drexel, George Washington, Penn, Richmond, or any of the other schools interested even have a chance? Everyone knew Sheehan would just go to St. Joe’s, right?

Of course, Sheehan did wind up on Hawk Hill, but she and her parents tried to give every college a fair chance.

“She chose St. Joe's. We tried not to influence that. Or, at least, I tried not to,” Eileen said with a laugh.

Mary Sheehan would agree with that. Her parents pointed out the positives at every college she visited. At the end of every visit, though, she found herself comparing the school to St. Joe’s. There wasn’t even a clear second choice.

It was obvious—Sheehan was going to spend her college years on Hawk Hill. Dennis and Eileen would have supported whatever choice their daughter made, of course, but having her carry on the St. Joe’s family legacy?

“It means the world to me and to Eileen,” Dennis said. “My dad went to St. Joe's. I had two uncles that went to St. Joe’s. I had four siblings [go to St. Joe’s], so five out of seven are St. Joe's alums, so for Mary to carry on that legacy on the basketball court and in the classroom means a lot to Eileen and I. It really does.”

Mary Sheehan’s first year on Hawk Hill didn’t go quite as planned. After playing in 10 games, she tore her labrum and had to sit out the rest of the season. The same thing happened in high school, but it’s uncommon for it to happen again. Turns out the first surgery to ‘fix’ her torn labrum didn’t actually fix it.

It would have been easy to get upset, especially since she just missed the cutoff for being able to redshirt the season and the Hawks made it to the A-10 championship game and the WNIT that year. Instead of fuming, Sheehan used that recovery time to get involved with other activities on campus.

Over the past few years, she’s grown into roles in numerous leadership committees: the student athlete advisory committee, an athletics department steering committee, a diversity and inclusion committee, and a COVID safety and protocols committee, to name a few.

Honing her leadership skills in her first two years of college helped Sheehan become a team captain her junior season, despite relatively limited playing time (16.6 minutes per game in 40 games).

“Mary is one of the hardest working players in our gym,” Griffin said. “She’s done an unbelievable job growing in a lot of leadership roles, but also from a basketball standpoint. She had to learn the perimeter position because she played a little bit of small forward in high school and she’s learned how to be on the perimeter, her shot has gotten 100 percent better, and her defense has gotten better.”

In 2019-20, Sheehan put up career bests in points (5.4), rebounds (3.4), assists (1.0), and minutes (29.1). It was also a big year for Sheehan academically; thanks to AP credits from high school, summer courses, and taking five classes per semester instead of the four many athletes take, she was able to finish her degree a year early. In theory, she could have entered the portal as a graduate transfer. In reality, leaving Hawk Hill was never an option. She’d get her MBA and continue to play at Hagan Arena.

Mary Sheehan dribbles a basketball

Mary Sheehan (above) has developed into a leader on and off the court at St. Joe's (Photo: Sideline Photos, LLC)

Sure, she had a few other options, but nothing had enough pull to keep her away, not even the job waiting for her at accounting powerhouse Deloitte. She assumed she’d have to give up the position if she wanted to extend her college career, but she was fine with that. Luckily for Sheehan, she was able to work with the company to defer her start date to 2022. There was nothing else to hold her back.

The status of Sheehan’s MBA was almost an afterthought. She could have finished the degree this summer and played her final year elsewhere while getting another degree. But, again, that wasn’t ever really an option for her. She just tacked on a few extra certificates so she’d have enough courses to be eligible for the season.

“When Mary discussed this with us back in the spring [...] I was kind of awestruck about Mary's commitment to the program,” Dennis said. “They’ve had a couple of seasons that they’re not used to where they lost more than they won. St. Joe's women’s basketball has a history of winning basketball. I think Mary's really committed to bringing back the culture of winning to that program.”

Commitment to St. Joe’s is nothing new for the Sheehan family. In November 2016, Dennis received the alumni association’s Reverend Joseph S. Hogan, S.J., Award, which is given to ‘an individual who exemplifies Christian principles and outstanding, loyal service to the University.’

Dedication to the university is just part of what the family does, whether that’s on the court, on a committee, or somewhere else. And from that dedication comes leadership.

“If you’re talking about St. Joe's as a whole, as a university, as an athletic program, as a program, women’s basketball, it’s ‘The Hawk Will Never Die,’” Griffin said. “I think that’s the relentlessness, the resilience, never getting down, always bouncing right back up if you fall down, and giving your best shot. And not only doing that, but bringing people along with you on that journey. I think that’s what [Sheehan] exemplifies.

“I think [leadership] is the big thing for her. Whether she starts for us or comes off the bench, she needs to be ready. She has some unfinished business, that was one thing she talked about. She wants to win a championship. She came to St. Joe’s to win a championship.”

The Hawks have finished under .500 every season since Sheehan’s first. The 2020-21 season started off with promise, as the team went 3-0, but an eight-game losing streak eliminated any hope of a winning season. The .412 winning percentage was the Hawks’ best since 2017-18, though.

Sheehan will be looking to build on a ‘senior’ year where she averaged 17.2 minutes, 3.1 points, and 2.6 rebounds in a pandemic-shortened season where she served as co-captain.

It’ll be her last time as a St. Joe’s student, last time as a St. Joe’s basketball player. But not her last time as a Hawk. Griffin sometimes jokes with Sheehan that, in 10 years, Sheehan will be running the university.

Even if Sheehan isn’t running Hawk Hill down the line, you can almost guarantee she’ll be involved with her alma mater in some way. That’s just what the family does, who they are.

“I always say to everyone that every day I'm living out my childhood dream,” Sheehan said. “This was always my school. It wasn’t Penn State, it wasn’t this big school. It was St. Joe's [...] and to play here is an absolute dream come true.”

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