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Gwynedd Mercy's Mondillo celebrates 500 wins with no end in sight

02/16/2023, 2:30am EST
By Myles Berry + Josh Verlin

Myles Berry (@MBerry_Writer) &
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

For Keith Mondillo, it all started in a “little CYO gym in Manayunk.” That’s where he decided he’d make a career-changing move and take on the position as head coach for the Gwynedd Mercy women’s basketball team. 

To be precise, it was the gym at St. John the Baptist where he used to play with, among others, former St. Joe’s coach John Griffin. On one particular Sunday morning in 1995, Mondillo and Griffin spoke about the former’s offer to coach at Gwynedd Mercy; at the time, the Arcadia grad and Knights’ assistant coach was unsure about taking the job or not, having never coached the women’s game before, much less doing so at his alma mater’s archrival.

Griffin’s argument was simple: it’s a full-time job coaching basketball.

“John Griffin was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mondillo said earlier this month, “[the reason] that I decided to take this job.”

It wasn’t just John Griffin who convinced Mondillo to say yes. It was another one of his former mentors, legendary coach William “Speedy” Morris, who also put in his two cents. According to Mondillo, Morris told him “I don’t care if you’re coaching men or women, small guys, tall guys, this, that — you’re coaching full-time, do it.” 

Morris knew what he’s talking about — the former Roman Catholic and St. Joe’s Prep coach has experience coaching both women’s and men’s basketball at La Salle University, coaching the women from 1984-’86, before crossing over to the men’s side and coaching them from 1986-2001. 

Gwynedd Mercy women's coach Keith Mondillo (above) grew up in Roxborough and went to Arcadia University, then Beaver College. (Photo: Anthony Pompilii/CoBL)

Five hundred wins later with Gwynedd Mercy, it looks like everything worked out for Mondillo.

“I know people get into the business to move up, and I thought I wanted to move up, too, but it just turned out that the women we recruited here and our administration we had here, it just felt right and we kept doing it year-in and year-out,” he said. “Honestly, after my first year, second year, I never even thought about leaving. 

“I haven’t updated my resume in 28 years.”

Mondillo currently sits at 503 wins as he approaches the end of his 27th season at Gwynedd Mercy, where he now serves as not only the school’s women’s basketball coach but its athletic director. Though the landscape has changed greatly from when he first took the reins, his success as a head coach — and the motivations behind them — haven’t changed a bit.

Mondillo's first year, in 1995-’96, wasn't an immediate success. The Griffins ended his inaugural season with a record of 9-15 overall, and 5-11 in the Pennsylvania Athletic Conference (PAC), which changed its name to the Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC) in 2008.

While it took him a few years to get better at X’s and O’s, Mondillo hit early upon a key part of his success: recruiting. It seems obvious today, but a quarter-century ago, the concept of constant recruiting hadn’t yet trickled down to the Division III programs, especially on the women’s side.

“Back then [...] after a high school boys’ game, there’s like 15 coaches waiting to talk to the same kid, so I was fighting to get in the front of the line and trying to figure out how to recruit,” he said. “I would go to a girls’ game, a high school girls’ game in the Catholic League, and there would be maybe one or two coaches there. Before I had kids and before I was married, I was out every night.”

Mondillo said his strategy, in addition to being out as often as possible, was to target “the best players off the worst teams in the city,” finding under-the-radar players who’d jump at a chance to play college hoops, to find some success in athletics, who wouldn’t be scared away by a program that had only begun a few years before Mondillo took over.

Players like Michelle Costa, who Mondillo picked up in 1996 out of now-closed John W. Hallahan, an all-girls’ school in center city, or Mary Anne Wade, who he got two years later, from Hatboro-Horsham.

“He was out recruiting before women’s basketball was as strong as it is today [..] he was already ahead of the curve,” said John Baron, who’s been at Gwynedd since 2000 as a men’s assistant before taking over that program in 2002. “That’s what made him really successful back when it first started, and then it just continued all these years.”

Building on their first season with Mondillo’s recruiting efforts starting to pay off, Gwynedd Mercy improved to 13-11 (9-7 PAC) in his second year, also qualifying for the PAC tournament, losing to Allentown College (now DeSales) in the first round, Costa earning PAC Rookie of the Year honors. In the 1997-’98 season they had a record of 22-4 (13-1) and reached the PAC finals before losing the championship to Alvernia.

Mondillo became Gwynedd’s athletic director after that season, earning a promotion from assistant AD role, but his new duties certainly didn’t slow down his team. That 1997-’98 season was the beginning of a five-year run where Mondillo’s Griffins won 22 or more games each season, as well as a 16-year streak of either appearing in the PAC/CSAC finals if not winning the championship altogether. 

The 1998-’99 season saw the Griffins reach a record of 24-5, and go undefeated in PAC play (16-0) for the first time. They fell to Cabrini in the PAC championship, and lost to powerhouse Scranton in the second round of Mondillo’s first NCAA tournament appearance. The next two years saw Gwynedd Mercy go 23-5 (15-1) and 22-6 (14-2) and win PAC championships in both seasons, defeating Wesley and Misericordia, respectively, in 2000 and 2001.

Costa became the program’s first superstar, the 6-1 forward setting a scoring mark (2,035) that still stands as the best in school history; she’s also second in scoring average (19.0 ppg), fifth in field-goal percentage (50.0%), tops by far in foul-shots made (641), tops in rebounds (952) and rebounding average (8.9/game), tops in blocked shots (336), sixth in steals (176), and more.

A four-team first team All-PAC selection, she was an All-American as a senior and was inducted into Gwynedd’s athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.

Wade took over the reins, the second-leading scorer in program history (1,653) a two-time all-conference first team selection, earning all-region honors as a junior, helping the Griffins make three NCAA Tournament appearances during her time and an induction into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2013. Rachel Pearson, another Gwynedd Hall of Fame selection (2012), scored 1,156 points before her graduation in 2000. 

Mondillo celebrates his 500th win with his 2022-23 squad. (Photo: Anthony Pompilii/CoBL)

Mondillo, ever-improving as a coach, knew how to step back and let his talent take over.

“We did a couple things and I got out of their way, and they did a lot on their own,” Mondillo said.  “Pushed a couple buttons, but nothing like I was some great orchestrator, I mean, they did it all.” 

The Griffins made two NCAA Tournaments in the next four years (2003-04), winning at least 13 games in the PAC each year, having a  “down” year in 2004-05 as they went 16-12 (13-3), losing to Alvernia in the PAC championship.

The next two years were arguably Gwynedd Mercy’s peak under Mondillo, the Griffins going 25-4 and 26-3 respectively while going undefeated in conference play and winning PAC championships both seasons, winning an NCAA Tournament game each year.

“That team was just talented, they got after it,” Mondillo said. “We didn’t lose in the league for three years [Ed. Note: they had one conference loss in 2007-08] and we lost at the buzzer by one in the championship that third year.”

After Mondillo’s two back-to-back championships, he spent the next three seasons coming up just short of the PAC/CSAC championship wins, and losing in the ECAC tournament as well. His next championship came in the 2011-’12 season where the Griffins went 20-8 (14-2) and won the CSAC, though lost in the NCAA tournament by just one point to Mount St. Mary (N.Y.)

Gwynedd Mercy had to wait another five years to see their Griffins capture another championship, the Griffins beating Cabrini in the 2017 CSAC title game, Mondillo’s ninth and most recent March Madness appearance ending with a loss to FDU-Florham.

Though the Griffins have only made one NCAA Tournament in the last decade, chalk that up not to Mondillo or the program losing a step but the overall improvement of the area’s small-college scene in his time as a coach, the emergence of multiple other D-II and D-III powerhouses not just locally but regionally making it harder to assemble the powerhouse rosters he had in the 1990s and earlier 2000s. 

But they’ve only had one losing season in that decade and have made the postseason every year, even as Gwynedd split away from the CSAC with Neumann, Cabrini and others to form the Atlantic East Conference (AEC) in 2018.

This year, they’re 14-10 overall (7-4 AEC) after an 83-52 win over Centenary (N.J.) on Wednesday, in a tie for third place in the AEast and qualified for the postseason with one game to play in the regular season, at Cabrini on Saturday. They’ve bounced back nicely from a five-game losing streak earlier in the winter, winning seven of their last nine games.

And Mondillo’s players still really enjoy playing for him.

“I think he’s really creative,” senior point guard Elise Sylvester said. “I love when we have our crazy presses and defenses, and switching it up, I think it’s really innovative and it’s really cool and fun to play that type of play.

“He definitely keeps the drive and keeps the fire under us for sure, he expects a lot out of us which is completely understood,” the Pope John Paul II product added. “I will definitely say that he keeps that edge towards our team, which is what we need.”

“I’m just grateful that Gwynedd has given me the opportunity to do this for as long as I have,” Mondillo said. “The old expression is coaches are hired to be fired, and I haven’t done everything right over the course of my career, but I like to think I’m in it for the right reasons, I’m in it for our students, I’m in it for our university.

“Not a lot of people get this opportunity, it literally beats working every day. When I leave every morning, my wife goes ‘what time do you have to go to school?’ or I’ll say ‘I have to go to school at 10 o’clock.’ I never say ‘I have to work,’ that’s the truth, I never say I’ve got to go to work, that’s never come out of my mouth.”

Mondillo poses with Gwynedd Mercy president Deanne H. D'Emilio (left) and Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students Joshua Stern. (Photo: Anthony Pompilii/CoBL)

Mondillo has also been instrumental in the expansion of Gwynedd Mercy University’s athletics as AD. When he took over as AD, Mondillo said the school only had “like six or seven” sports; since then Gwynedd Mercy has started teams in baseball, softball, women’s soccer, cross-country, men’s lacrosse, and track & field. On top of all that, the school is also constructing a new $5 million dollar baseball/softball stadium.

“My real job is AD,” he said. “My secondary duty here is as coach.”

Mondillo secured his 500th win against Immaculata University, an 84-83 win in overtime on Saturday, January 28. While he couldn’t jump straight to 501, losing 64-59 to a strong Marymount University squad, wins 501 and 502 came in the next two games to Marywood and Neumann. 

He said the chase for the milestone number, of which he’s the 19th active Division III women’s basketball coach to surpass, only started to affect him once he got to 499, three days before achieving it in his first try.

“It turned into the pitcher in the dugout in the 8th inning with a no-hitter and somebody going ‘Hey, good luck next inning!,’” he cracked. “All of my buddies who had nothing to do with basketball [were texting me]: ‘hey, are you going to win tonight?”

It didn’t hurt Mondillo’s winning that he was able to rely on mentors like Griffin and Morris, as well as Jefferson head coach Tom Shirley, who like Mondillo is also an athletic director and highly-successful women’s coach, with more than 800 wins to his name. In college, he played for Mike Holland at Arcadia; Mike had previously been head coach at Council Rock, where he coached a young ballplayer named Jay Wright

Mondillo met Wright early in his career, a connection which paid off about a dozen years ago when Gwynedd Mercy needed a place to practice for a few days, its gym unavailable, and Wright offered his facility free of charge.

“We practiced for three days in [Villanova’s] Davis Center, my team’s practicing, we’re 15 minutes into it, and here comes Jay, walking in, because he just wanted to see if everything’s alright,” Mondillo recalled. “I’m like ‘Jay, I can’t thank you enough.’ 

“My team was like this,” he said, and went slack-jawed.

Mondillo’s 500th win was only the latest career achievement; he’s already been selected to multiple Hall of Fames, including the Montgomery County Coaches’ Hall of Fame and the one he’s most proud of, the 21st Ward Hall of Fame, which represents his Manayunk/Roxborough roots.

It’s a nice list of accolades, usually attributed to coaches nearing the end of their careers, but Mondillo is only 51 years old, nowhere near retirement age. And he’s not thinking about hanging it up anytime soon, meaning 500 is likely to be only the latest milestone, not the last.

“No, I mean, It’s one of those things where there’s not an end game to it,” Mondillo said. “As long as I’m healthy, and my wife allows me to, I get the chance to see my son play and see my daughter play, and we’re growing as university still [...] no. 

“There’s no time that I’m thinking I’m ever not going to coach,” he added. “We’re not a national power but we’re very competitive, [...] and we can compete with anybody. As long as that happens, our school still supports us, which they unbelievably do, and we get good kids in here — not good players, just good kids, as long as they can play a little bit, I’ll still coach. 

“Beats working every day.”

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