Jason Guarente (@JasonGuarente)
Amy Mallon is entering her second season as head coach of Drexel’s women’s basketball team. After serving as an assistant under Denise Dillon for 16 years, Mallon led the Dragons to the 2021 Colonial Athletic Association Championship and the program’s first NCAA bid since 2009.
A St. Joe’s grad and a Big Five Hall of Famer, Mallon played professionally overseas and with the American Basketball League’s Philadelphia Rage. She’s got a deep, talented and experienced roster to work with this season, including fifth-year senior point guard Hannah Nihill (16.3 ppg/3.8 apg) and grad student forward Mariah Leonard (8.4 ppg/6.5 rpg), with former Bucknell standout Tessa Brugler (13.2 ppg/10.0 rpg) joining the squad for a grad student year.
CoBL spoke with Mallon earlier this month to talk about the Dragons’ championship season, their returning talent, and high hopes for the 2021-22 season. Here is a transcript of that conversation, edited for readability and length:
Amy Mallon (above) made it to the NCAA Tournament in her first year as Drexel's head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
City of Basketball Love: You took over as head coach in March of 2020, when sports were shutting down indefinitely. What was that like?
Amy Mallon: It was a transition in so many ways. Denise (Dillon), who was the coach, moved into a new position [at Villanova]. We had to tell the team over Zoom after being there for so long. Obviously the comfort of being some place where you already knew how things were done and knew the players made it easier. I felt like the whole year was all about survival. Getting through that day for the next day and figuring out what you were going to do. It was definitely an interesting transition but also having a little bit of comfort being in a place where you know the people really well and the support you have.
CoBL: What was it like to coach under those unusual circumstances?
AM: I thought the team that could get through this period, it was all about survival every day. Setting a goal for this day. What we were trying to get done. We kept it pretty simple all year. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to compete every day and we’re going to get better. I really felt like that was the year. You really didn’t know day-to-day if you were going to have a game. It could be canceled. Probably a lot of coaches will say this: You didn’t prepare as much for your opponent. You just prepared your team the best you could every day. To face whoever it might be. If you had a game canceled you were suddenly playing a team you weren’t supposed to play.
CoBL: Somehow you get through all that and you win the conference tournament. That wasn’t necessarily expected. Was it a surprise to you?
AM: I don’t think it was in the sense that I knew we had it in us with our leadership, with Hannah Nihill leading the way. If you’ve watched her play or seen her play, she’s pretty relentless across the board. Her theme ‘is if there’s a will, there’s a way.’ She pretty much defines that. I think she stepped up in a year where we lost four seniors, three of them played multiple minutes, [including] the Player of the Year in Bailey Greenberg. We lost 80% of our scoring, 80% of our leadership and 80% of our height. You have your 5-2 point guard come in and say, ‘What do you need me to do this year? I’ll do it.’ She pretty much did it all. She was Defensive Player of the Year. She was all-conference. She was our leading scorer. She was a leader. I think that mentality pretty much was our team’s mentality. They followed those leaders.
The start of the year it was, ‘Let’s hope we get our games in. Let’s hope we have a solid season after what we lost the year before.’ The fact that we were able to do that made it more special. We went through the conference tournament. We played Elon, one of the toughest teams in our conference, and beat them at home. We beat JMU in overtime in the semifinals. Then we played the No. 1 seed (Delaware) in the championship. We lost to them twice in the regular season. At halftime we were down nine. When Hannah Nihill says, ‘Hey, we’re not losing this.’ I believe her. That was pretty much our mentality. The run we made was pretty special. We really beat the best teams getting to that position.
CoBL: Some of your seniors, your best players Hannah Nihill and Mariah Leonard, decided to come back for a fifth season. How did you navigate that decision with them?
AM: When that rule was passed, when we knew there was going to be another year of eligibility for the winter sports, I addressed it right away. I said, ‘We’ll talk about this at the end of the season.’ It was one of those things where I felt like it was only fair for our seniors to have a choice. Especially seniors who had that type of impact on the season. To make that decision at the end. Let’s talk about it once the season is over. Once things have settled in. Let’s talk about why you’d come back.
It’s not going to be my choice. It’s going to be your choice. But if you’re in, you’re all in. There’s no wavering. To have Hannah Nihill come back with the impact she had on the team, on and off the court, and Mariah Leonard, she’s your heart player, the player that does all those little things as well. That really gives us a great step going into next season. You have two players who are really the heart of your team coming back. I’m excited about them returning and what they’ll be able to do this season.
CoBL: It seems like a dream situation for a coach. The best players always leave too fast. All of a sudden there’s this free year. What’s that like for you?
AM: It’s one of those things where in my head I was hoping that’d be the case. You want them to be in a position where they’re like, ‘I want to play another year. I want to compete.’ Just knowing the competitors they are, it didn’t surprise me that they’d want to come back and play another year. To have that happen it gives you a little bit of that security, a little bit of that confidence as you head into this season. Now, we’re looking at a ‘normal’ season. So we’re going to have a full non-conference schedule. We’re going to have people in the stands. I’m excited because it gives these seniors the opportunity to have that experience in their last year. I know so many people that [opportunity] was taken away from. They’re going to have a chance for their families to see them play and see them perform. That’s another exciting piece of getting that year back.
CoBL: Then you add Tessa Brugler from Bucknell. A Patriot League All-Star. Another fifth-year player. How did she end up on your radar?
AM: We’re really excited about Tessa. Obviously her numbers and her accolades, what she’s been able to do individually and on Bucknell’s team, I couldn’t be more excited to add her to the roster. She’s been on the radar since we played them. She was on the all-defensive team and that’s something we really pride ourselves on. I remember her guarding Bailey Greenberg, who was our best player, and she really shut her down. We ended up losing at Bucknell. That always stuck in my head just as a player knowing her. We were aware of her younger sister (Talya) who we were also recruiting. We had a good relationship with her family. When we saw she was available, Laura Kurz, our recruiting coordinator, really jumped on that. We were able to reach out. I feel like with Tessa, her maturity, her leadership, her presence, she brings all that. She wanted to be in a program where she was going to have an impact. When you look at our team last year, what she brings is something we were missing. The size and the scoring inside consistently. I’m really excited about her being added to the roster.
CoBL: You have your top 5 scorers back with Tessa Brugler added to the picture. It’s a powerhouse team on paper. How do you see it?
AM: I think we have a chance to have a successful season. How do you define success? Is it always a championship? No, but if we do the little things day in and day out and you can build on those, you can be in position to win a championship. Everybody is going to have everybody back next year with additions to their roster. It’s going to come back to who’s going to work harder, who’s going to compete every day and who’s going to get better. We can’t be in that position next year if we don’t get a little bit better every day.
CoBL: There are quite a few Philly area players on your team. Is that a conscious decision or something that happens because those are the recruits you get to see most often?
AM: I think both. I think we get to see them a lot. That was something when I first started at Drexel that was a big step for us. To recruit and get local kids to come to Drexel. We didn’t have a ton of that. It started with our first kid from [Cardinal] O’Hara, Catherine Scanlan, and it moved around the Catholic League. [Archbishop] Carroll kids. [Archbishop] Wood kids. I think that definitely is a great mix for us. We have a handful of those players who understand Philly basketball. They come from the area. We play local teams that have some of their teammates on them. That piece, being a competitor on the court and having those rivals is such a fun part of the game. It’s always why we have that success.
CoBL: Brianne Borcky is one of those local recruits. She went to Garnet Valley. How do you see her fitting in this season?
AM: Bri and Hetta Saatman are two juniors. I feel like that sophomore class got really hurt by the COVID year. They missed that whole freshman and sophomore chance to get in, that six months to improve and develop. I feel like last year for Bri it was almost like she was back to being a freshman again. She and Hetta came on a lot stronger toward the end of our season. As far as what they were doing and the impact they were having on the floor.
Bri can bring that. She’s a versatile player. She can play multiple positions with her size and her skill work. She can shoot the ‘3.’ She can post up. She can rebound. I’m really hoping those strengths for her can continue to shine. I see her in that rotation in our 3-4-5 position with her ability and skill set.
CoBL: It’s interesting you mention the struggles for the sophomores. The incoming freshmen, someone like Erin Sweeney from Carroll, had their hands full. Was it hard for them to not get a normal introduction to the team?
AM: The freshmen, we had three on the roster, definitely got hurt. They came in and it wasn’t a normal social or academic setting in all those ways. With Erin Sweeney and Jasmine Valentine, this summer session you can see them continuing to grow. I feel like they still had their high school season, at least. What they missed out on was the social side of college. Meeting people other than their teammates and experiencing that. That’s a big part of the growth period, too. Considering it all, they’ve continued to grow.
CoBL: As great as it is to give these seniors a fifth year, it stops the natural roster attrition from happening. The younger players can’t ascend to bigger roles. Have you sensed any frustration from that? That they’re stuck in this logjam?
AM: That’s my biggest concern as a coach. Are you developing? I felt it more for the incoming freshmen. In our program there’s a natural progression. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re successful. You don’t see a lot of freshmen play or start immediately. The ones who have were Players of the Year in our league. For the most part our players came and they really progressed and developed. We have kids ahead of them that are playing. Our incoming freshmen are the ones who get hurt a little more. Luckily for us, that’s a smaller class. If you had a big class of freshmen, that was my biggest concern. Also the leadership. Other people stepping into leadership roles. So far I haven’t seen (frustration). With our team we talk about being a program, not necessarily a team every year. Who we are, our culture, we’re very team oriented. I think people don’t really care who gets the credit as long as we find a way to be successful on the court.
CoBL: How much do you draw from your playing days at this stage of your coaching life?
AM: I think you always try to put yourself back at that time. When you get a little impatient, you remind yourself, ‘I was like that when I was their age.’ I’ve used the saying that coaches have: We’re not going to ask you to do something we haven’t done at some point in our careers. That piece is always a reminder. We want to work hard on and off the court and we also want to have fun with it. Finding the balance, especially in this time when there are a lot more shots from different areas, you’ve heard a lot about the anxieties that young student-athletes are facing. The things they worry about may not be the things I worried about. But I remind myself I’m sure there was something that was happening at the time. I had an opportunity to play at the next level, to play professionally, for those players who strive to go beyond playing in college, I think that’s helpful, too. To understand what that mentality is that you need to play professionally. It’s a little bit different than playing in college. They understand that moving forward.
CoBL: Do you find that your players are interested in what you achieved as a player? Do they ask you about it?
AM: They do. I feel like it’s so far out now. It’s definitely something you find yourself having conversations about. I have a picture from when I played with the Rage and I played with Dawn Staley. Hannah Nihill, who is a point guard, she loves Dawn Staley. She knows all about her and what she’s been able to do. She comes in and she sees that picture. It’s pretty cool that you played pro basketball. They definitely have a connection with you for that. Often your best kids want to play at the next level. That helps a lot with that motivation to work and listen to what you’re saying. It’s really important to have that connection with your players. The more you get to know them, the more they’re gonna want to know from you.