The 2014-15 season came to a close for the Cougars with a 64-61 semifinal loss to first ranked Indiana Wesleyan University in the Crossroads League tournament.
While this loss marked the end of Jared Ronai’s first season as head coach, the MVNU basketball program has flourished under his guidance. Ronai took over a team that won eight games the previous season.
Using mostly returning players, Ronai led this team to a record of 18-13, a fifth-place finish in the league’s regular standings, a berth in the league tournament and a first-round tournament victory.
MVNU’s last winning season came in 2010-11 when the Cougars went 16-15 on the season. Ronai, who was an assistant at UNC-Asheville previously, came in with the idea to change the culture here at MVNU with his “RULE Cougar” program — a system he expected his players to adopt both on and off the court.
“RULE Cougar is the phrase we use for our culture and the way we operate both on and off the floor,” Ronai said. “RULE stands for Relentless, Unbreakable, Leadership and Excellence. This is our vision and what we stand for as a team and program.”
Ronai insisted that the players buy into the philosophy, on the grounds it would make them both better players and better people.
“A lot of coaches preach about the fact that basketball is also about life,” senior forward Bryan Redic said. “However, I have not had a coach who has been as purposeful and deliberate about highlighting that fact.”
“RULE doesn’t just apply to our play on the basketball court, but it is a way of life that influences every part of a person. This philosophy has changed the way we do things on and off of the court.”
As a first-year and first-time head coach, Ronai had to overcome the challenge of getting his team to respect and believe in the RULE Cougar mindset.
Along with the cultural overhaul, Ronai came in with a specific style of play, focused particularly on intense defense. In short, he was changing everything these players had known.
Ronai was able to get this team to believe in his system wholeheartedly. Players said Ronai’s intensity and positive attitude helped them to buy in.
“No matter what time of day it was, Coach was always full of energy and very well prepared,” Redic said. “Even when we had 6 a.m. practices, Coach would be yelling and in a defensive stance as if he had on a uniform. Even though it was a little annoying at 6 a.m., it gave me the feeling that he was in it with us. Coach Ronai never asked us to do anything he wouldn’t do.”
All the hard work and a new mindset paid off. It was a special season for the Cougars — and in the final stretch of the season the Cougars were one of the hottest teams in the conference and in the country.
After last season’s result, it was a welcome surprise to many to see this type of play and these kinds of results from the Cougars. Ronai said he expects to do even better in coming seasons.
“I am excited for the future of our program,” Ronai said. “I think we turned some heads this year with our effort and we laid our cultural foundation. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow and improve as a program.”
His strategy on the court was impressive and is likely to continue paying off even more as he gets his own recruits into this system.
That’s a big focus now that the season is over. But Ronai said it’s not just about the new guys; it’s also about what the current players do to improve over the summer.
“This spring and summer is big for us as a team and as individual players,” Ronai explained. “Players’ skill sets are developed in the off-season. We have to be a program that develops players and each year guys need to take tremendous strides both physically and with their skill set on the floor.
Ronai said he expects “tremendous improvements” this off-season. “I believe our guys are hungry to get better,” he said.
A new recruiting class and development of young players like Josh Ashwill, Jordi Mas, Joey Schmitz, Isaiah McQueen and Pat Lucas gives Ronai and the team’s fans high expectations for next year.
The team finished the 2014-15 season receiving votes in the final NAIA poll — and the argument could be made that the Cougars deserved a ranking in the top 25. Grace College finished 21st despite losing twice to the Cougars in the last month of the season. The Cougars also defeated 8th-ranked Bethel and outplayed top-ranked Indiana Wesleyan in the final weeks.
Ronai also was snubbed for Crossroads League Coach of the Year, an honor that was shared by Jim Kessler of Grace and Greg Tonagel of IWU. Considering where the Cougars finished a year ago, Ronai should have been in the running.