EAST PROVIDENCE – There's a distinct reason why only a few folks in these parts are paying attention to the success of the Bishop Keough High girls' hoop team: They've been programmed not to care.
Even the school itself, located just up Smithfield Avenue from a cemetery, is miniscule in student population, often graduating between nine and 14 seniors every June. People realize the Keough administration and teaching staff is huge on religion and academics; they also realize they view athletics as extracurricular activities that merely bolster students' resumes for higher education.
No question, academic excellence is integral for the girls to gain admittance to the college or university of their dreams, but few if any can play at even an NCAA Division III or NAIA level.
According to John Roque, in his fourth season at the helm of the Koalas' squad, not many within the school itself have recognized exactly what these young ladies have accomplished in that time, but it's more than significant.
When Roque took over in November 2009, he led Keough – almost always considered a pushover athletically – to a 6-12 overall mark. For most private or public institutions, that would be considered either a disaster or just a rebuilding season. For the Koalas, it proved to be a benchmark, as it had snagged more victories than it had enjoyed in no one knows how long.
During the 2010-11 campaign, the Koalas went 11-7 overall, only to drop a special play-in tilt to the state D-III tournament. And, a year ago, Roque's contingent finished 13-7 overall, landing just a triumph shy of competing for the Rhode Island championship.
Then there's this winter: Prior to Saturday night's 51-38 defeat to powerhouse Juanita Sanchez of Providence, Keough sat in grand position to garner a playoff bid for the third straight year, as it had recorded a 6-3 overall mark and 4-3 league record.
Add those numbers up, and – under Roque – this tiny program has produced an overall mark of 36-29.
Even the head coach expressed surprise at that.
“Hey, that's not bad!” he grinned while his team practiced inside Haven United Methodist Church's small basement gymnasium (that courtesy of assistant Jim Hibbert) on Thursday afternoon. “I never thought I'd be approaching that number. Like I said, it's not bad, but we still have a ton of work to do.
“At the beginning of this season, I thought we'd be able to compete with the (upper echelon) Middletowns and Juanita Sanchezes, but I was wrong,” he added. “Last year, we had a lot of seniors, but they graduated, and we only had two returning starters coming back (senior swing Suigly Mendoza and sophomore guard Ashley Correa).
“The reality is we're still really young, and I'm thinking they feel the same way as my players in our first year felt. The bottom line is these girls still have talent, but they need to learn how to become more of a team. Each individual needs to concentrate on the team concept, and not their own personal statistics. If they do that, there's no reason to think we can't make another run.”
Truth be told, Roque initially didn't take the job when Athletic Director Rick Simard came to him back in 2009.
“I turned it down twice, and I had a lot of reasons,” noted Roque, a Central Falls native who has achieved success while coaching youngsters at the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket. “The third time, Rick called me and said, 'Coach, this is the last time I'm going to offer it. If you don't take it, I'll have to shut the (hoop) program down.' That was around Thanksgiving.
“It was always my dream to coach a high school team, but I didn't want to coach girls, and I also didn't want to coach at Keough because it was so small,” he continued. “I knew athletics weren't a huge priority there. I felt like I didn't want my first job to be with a school where two or three wins a season was OK, where no one apparently cared.
“I also thought I couldn't change the program given the talent pool that was provided. But then a trusted friend told me after I expressed my concerns, 'If you can change it, maybe people will look at that and see how well you've done.' I also felt guilty, because I knew if I didn't take it, the basketball program would fail to exist; that would mean it happened because I was being too selfish.”
Two days later, he accepted.
“When I came in, I met with Rick, and he told me, 'Look, I know this isn't your dream job, but – if you can hang in there for a year – it will give me more time to find another coach; that way, I won't have to shut it down,'” Roque stated. “I just said, 'I'll give you more than a year if you let me coach the way I want to coach.
“He asked, 'What do you mean?' and I just told him I wouldn't be happy with two or three wins a season,” he added. “I said I'd be miserable, and so would the girls who I planned on coaching. He gave me the impression I didn't know what I was getting myself into.”
At his very first practice, he asked a few girls to line up on the perimeter.
“They looked at me and said, 'What's that?'” he offered. “Some of these girls had been on the team for two years, and they didn't know what the perimeter was. That's when I realized, “John, you're in trouble.'”
At campaign's end, after expressing to the athletes that all he wanted them to do was listen and work hard, the Koalas closed at 6-12. He claimed he was downtrodden, “but the parents looked at me like I was 'Coach K' (Duke University's legendary men's mentor Mike Krzyzewski). They were, like, 'What a great season! You should be proud,' but I was miserable. Deep down, I knew I was winning more (games) with 11-12 year-old boys at the Boys & Girls Club.”
The following year, in 2010-11, the squad took to the floor with a slight increase in confidence, and it showed with an 11-7 mark.
“It was the first time Keough had won 10 games in … well, it could be forever,” Roque said seriously. “I asked if the school had archives, so I could look up if it had before, but apparently, they weren't kept. Anyway, we finished the season tied for the last playoff spot with Juanita Sanchez, so we had a special play-in game.
“Sanchez had beaten us once in triple overtime at their house, and the next time we lost by 11 or 12 at St. Raphael (Academy's Alumni Hall, its home floor for contests). We ended up beating them by 17 at their gym, and, man, that was a tough crowd.
“It was pure jubiliation,” he continued with a mammoth smile. “I had been coaching since 1999, but I knew that win was so important for this program. We ended up in the (D-III) quarterfinal against Central, and we had to play them at their place (the relatively new and massive Providence Career & Technical Academy's fieldhouse).
“When we walked inside, the girls were in awe, despite the fact we had played them there before. They saw the scoreboard clock above the mid-court stripe, and some of the looked really nervous, others were nervous but acted like they weren't. God, I even had to catch myself; I thought, 'God, I'm coaching a playoff game – here?'
“Still, before the game started, I thought about Rick and the conversation we had a year earlier, about me being hesitatant to take the job. Now I was thinking, 'I wouldn't trade this for the world!'”
The Koalas trailed the Knights by 11 at halftime, but Roque issued them some reassurance.
“I looked into their eyes, and I saw them wanting to quit; I saw the 'We're not going to be able to do this' look,” he said. “I just went, 'You think it's over? I don't. Girls, we've worked way too hard this year to give up now. They're expecting us to quit, roll over. They're in there saying right now, 'They're going to roll over in the second half. They're Keough. They look defeated,' but prove them wrong! We may lose, but we're not going down without a fight. They don't think we belong here. Trust me, we do!'”
Led by Mendoza and then-6-1 junior center Caroline Guzman, the Koalas battled back but eventually dropped a tight 44-40 decision.
Before the opening of the 2011-12 campaign, Roque returned with the same mantra he had been preaching since Day One.
“Mr first year, I told them, 'Ladies, we'll probably lose most of our games, but I don't care about that. We're going to play basketball the right way. We're going to play hard, we're going to swarm the ball and we're going to push back when they push us,'” he recalled. “We're not going to be a doormat anymore.
“I still tell them, 'We don't have our own gym, and we don't have a team bus or a great deal of support, but we do have ourselves. You don't need a ton of talent to work hard. It's a decision you have to make deep down in your soul. You can either go out there and bust your butts, or be lazy and lose by 40. You work hard, and you'll have a chance to win.'”
Keough began the season with three straight losses, despite the fact Guzman was back for her senior year and Roque added to his roster the talented Correa. Still, two came to the usual league stalwarts, Sanchez and Middletown.
The Koalas, though, went on a seven-game win streak, mustered a 12-6 record and finished third in the league. For earning the third seed, they hosted their first-ever playoff tilt.
“That was a big issue because we had no gym on campus, and St. Ray's had already given us all of our home dates,” he said. “God bless them, they were able to squeeze us in after changing some things around.”
They responded in kind, eking out a 46-43 quarterfinal triumph over Central, the same club it lost to in the state tourney the winter before. In the process, it earned a bid to the semifinal against Middletown at Rhode Island College.
“We were one game away from playing for the state championship,” he chuckled. “Little Bishop Keough, can you believe it? I told the girls the same thing: Work hard, do what you do best, and you can succeed.”
His mood changed immediately.
“We started off flat, and – at one point during the first half – we had more turnovers than points,” he said. “The pressure was just too much. Once the opening tip went up, I felt 1,000 pounds of pressure on my shoulders, and I think the girls sensed it. I blame most of that loss on me because it was a new atmosphere even for me.
“I still told the girls at the break, 'Remember last year at Central, with all the lights and media attention? You can come back because we've done it before. Give yourselves a chance and fight back. We're a better team this year, no doubt!'
“They went out and clawed their way back into it, and we were down four with about three minutes left,” he added. “With two (minutes) and change left, I called my last timeout to plan what to do. I said, 'Girls, this is what we've been fighting for. You know what, those girls are scared over there. They're intimidated, they're worried!'
“All of a sudden, I looked up, and one of my seniors was crying, 'This is my last game, and I'm going to miss you guys!' Next thing I know, most of the others were crying, and then the horn sounded (to return to the floor).
“The emotion of it all, it was like someone pulled out a pin and burst our balloon. We were just deflated.”
Keough lost the contest by four, but Roque claims the tide is turning. Keough is becoming a winning program, and Mendoza, one of his three-tri-captains with Correa and sophomore Jailyn Gomes (a transfer from Our Lady of Fatima), knows why.
“We both came in the same year, and Coach told us right away he wanted us to become winners; I thought he was nuts!” Mendoza giggled. “I didn't think we had that much talent. I mean, we only have, like, 65 girls in the whole school. We didn't have enough girls to draw from.
“Now we're actually winning, and it blows my mind,” she added. “My freshman year, we won six games, and we thought that was special. As each year passed, we've won more, and it's because Coach has taught us what we need to do on the court and how to think off it.
“He's such a good motivator, even when we're losing. He tells us we should never give up because we'd never know how a game would turn out if we really tried … My freshman year, I was really nervous, and I didn't know what to expect, but you learn from Coach how to play more aggressive defense, how to be more intense, how to shoot the ball more accurately. Those little things add up.
“But I still think we need to work better as a team. I think, with me and Ashley, we don't work together as well as we should. It's because of communication; we need to talk more on the court. If we do that, hopefully we'll win even more.”
Offered Gomes: “He can be a tough coach ...” As soon as the words left her mouth, she heard Roque yell, “Do something!” then chuckled.
“That's what I mean,” she continued. “He puts a lot of pressure on us because he wants us to work hard all the time. He says if we work hard in practice, it'll translate to games. He also tells us never to give up, no matter the situation.
“He's helped me most with my shooting. He's always saying not to push the ball but to let it roll of my fingers, and to use my legs.”
Correa indicated she's surprised, but isn't, at Keough's steady improvement the past few years.
“I didn't think we'd be that good my freshman year because people said Keough isn't that good,” she said. “Now we're proving them wrong. It feels great, but I want to keep it up. I like winning!
“Still, we're not going to let anything go to our heads; we have to keep working hard, and we have to move the ball more,” she added. “That's one area we need to get better. Sometimes, we have people who want to do too much themselves, including myself. We need to trust each other more.
“I don't think we're playing even close to as well as we can. I also think we haven't realized just how far we can go. I do know this: It all comes with hard work.”