The Orphan's Triumph

The women of Mitchell College owe their record to a grateful grad
March 07, 1994

You can bet your bottom dollar that 1) the sun'll come up tomorrow and 2) the Mitchell College women's basketball team, the Pequots, will come out on top. The first maxim comes courtesy of Little Orphan Annie in the long-running Broadway show that bore her name; the second, by way of a tribute to the similarly lengthy career of another orphan, Danny, who as coach of this New London, Conn., juco team, is the legal guardian of the longest regular-season winning streak in college basketball.

"Mitchell adopted me when I had nothing left to lose," says Dan Mara, 39, an only child whose father, James, died when Dan was two. Eighteen years later, while a sophomore at Mitchell, Mara lost his mother, Elizabeth, in a fire. "On the day I graduated from college [he earned a B.A. in English from Roger Williams in Bristol, R.I., in '76], Mitchell offered me a summer job as a dorm director. I'm still here."

As of Feb. 25, Mitchell's women's teams had won an astounding 190 consecutive regular-season games, leaving in the dust the 88-game run made by UCLA in the early '70s. How does a coach at a tiny (800 students) juco—a coach who, by the way, was cut the only time he tried out for a basketball team—defy the law of averages for seven straight years? "All I can say," says Mara, "is that God is a Pequot."

God could play forward for Mitchell—actually he couldn't, because Mara likes to play five guards simultaneously—and that still wouldn't explain the team's success. The fact is, Mara has a brilliant basketball mind. "He's the most cerebral coach I know," says his best friend, Al Sokaitis, the men's coach at Southern Maine. "He understands the game."

For example, Mara knows that players like to run and hate to play defense, so he sets goals his players enjoy achieving. "We try to score 25 points every 10 minutes," says the coach, whose team averaged a top-rated 99.6 points per game last year. "Defense?" he asks facetiously. "Who cares? We don't play D to stop the other team from scoring, we play it to dictate tempo." Which explains why the Pequots will stay in a full-court zone press for the entire game, creating dozens of turnovers and layups per outing.

Mara still lives on campus, in Matteson Hall, a men's dorm. Annie had Sandy, a mutt, for companionship; Mara rooms with Pep, a 16-year-old Samoyed and collie mix, who until this season sat beside him at home games. And the coach is something of a Daddy Warbuckets to ragamuffin roundballers. Each year Mara looks after stray players who, for various reasons, have not found a place at a four-year college, and he makes them part of his family.

"We're a full-service station," says Mara, whose top player last year, Allegra Schell, led the nation in scoring and now starts for St. John's in New York City. "We recruit 'em, develop 'em and then place 'em. We're New Haven on the New York-to-Boston line."

This year's team is more Eurail than Amtrak. Rouzanna Vagradian, 26, the Pequots' leading scorer (28 points a game), emigrated from Armenia in the summer of '92. Malquida James, who leads the team in steals and is second in assists, grew up in Brussels, the daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant. Belen Del Rio and Elena Labe, who also frequently start, are from Zaragoza, Spain. And not one of them is homesick.

"With Coach, you're not in contact on a daily basis," says James, who will play next fall at Oregon State. "You're in contact on an hourly basis. I was rushed to the hospital a few weeks ago [she had an ovarian infection], and he stayed with me the entire six hours I was there. He'll do anything for us."

Mara didn't always have women crossing oceans to play for him. "It all comes down to this picture," he says, displaying a black-and-white photo of a Pequot game, "which I keep as a memento."

Underneath the photo, taken in December '77, when Mara was a volunteer assistant for the women's team under coach Jim Grant, is the score: Roxbury Community College 102, Mitchell College 23. "After the game I looked at Jim," recalls Mara, "and said, 'We gotta get some freakin' players.' "

Grant and Mara were both shameless and aimless in their pursuit of talent, logging 3,000 miles in a Datsun pickup the following spring. "We went after everybody and promised them the only thing we had to offer: playing time," Mara says.

As he did in the Datsun, Mara rode shotgun with Grant for six more seasons. When Grant retired in 1984, Mitchell athletic director Doug Yarnall put Mara in charge.

Mara is content at Mitchell. "If we lost 190 in a row, I'd still be here," he says. "I 'don't love it here because I coach basketball. I love it here because it's my home, my family."

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONMara and his players, many of whom come from abroad, consider their tiny powerhouse home.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)