Head coach Andrew Morong runs practice at Central Maine Community College in Auburn in 2013.
AUBURN — Andrew Morong thought he might be a sports agent. Or maybe a team manager.
After graduating from Morse High School in 2004, Morong earned a psychology degree from the University of Maine, but sports was always in his future. He just didn’t envision being so close to the action.
It turns out, he’s one heck of a coach.
Morong has made a fairly quick and wildly successful jump from high school assistant to collegiate head coach. This season, he extended his winning record and led Central Maine Community College to its first-ever national championship win in women’s basketball. He’s at the helm of a thriving program and has settled in to a role that suits him perfectly.
It might have taken him time to realize it, but coaching has always been in him.
Morong has been on a basketball court for almost his entire life. Before he could even walk, he was attending his dad Tom Morong’s practices at Morse High. Fast-forward about 18 years, and he’s on the bench next to him as a coach. After two years as an assistant and three as associate head coach of the girls varsity squad, Morong realized there was something to this whole coaching gig.
“I never really thought about coaching until I started it,” Morong said. “Once I got into coaching, it’s really easy to get hooked. I just kind of fell in love with it.”
Soon, he was running his own team. With five years of experience at Morse under his belt, Morong moved on to coach the girls varsity team at Poland Regional High School in 2008. As time went on, he realized why he was falling in love with it all.
It was the relationships, the player growth and the time off the court.
“More of the teaching aspect,” he said. “Not just the X’s and O’s and the on-the-court stuff; the way you can impact a young adult’s life and help teach them life lessons. To me, that’s what coaching really is.”
So, when CMCC came calling in 2011, Morong couldn’t resist. It was a jump to a much higher level of basketball, but it was also a much more demanding job. In the best of both worlds, he could coach basketball and incorporate his sports management background.
He found out quickly that, in college, the list of responsibilities for a head coach is much longer.
“As a high school coach, you have to play the hand you’re dealt. At the end of the day, whatever kids are in the school system, that’s what you have to work with. In college, you recruit. You handpick every single one of your players. To me, that’s my favorite part of the job.”
Now, Morong estimates that roughly 70 percent of his job involves recruiting. Rather, 70 percent of his job involves “a mad science.” A bulk of the CMCC roster is comprised of local players from towns like Lisbon, Lewiston and Poland. Three players played for Edward Little High right down the road in Auburn.
But Morong says that’s not necessarily intentional. He can show up to a high school game and know quickly if a player is good enough to play for the Mustangs, but he’s looking for more than just talent. As he puts it, “it’s all about fit.”
“I don’t care how talented a player is if it’s not a good fit. If they’re wanting to go to school to party or to make basketball their fifth or sixth priority, then that’s not a good fit for our program,” he said. “We want people who want to take basketball very, very seriously.
“We go after the state’s best players. We’ve been told ‘no’ way more times than we’ve been told ‘yes.’ But you’ve got to go for it. We’re going after the best of the best.”
When those players don’t pan out, Morong and his staff branch out and look way beyond Auburn.
“We always have kids from pretty much all over. We’ve had kids from Canada, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas — all over the place. You’ve just got to sprinkle in the out-of-state kids to help take your program to the next level.”
This year, with the first two international players in the program, CMCC reached the highest level.
A special group
It didn’t take long for Morong to find success in his first collegiate job. In just his second season at the helm, he led CMCC to a perfect regular season in the Yankee Small College Conference.
Then, a year later, in the 2013-2014 campaign, he led another undefeated regular season as the Mustangs won their third straight YSCC tournament and earned the No. 1 seed in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national tournament.
They ultimately lost in the final, but more than made up for it this season.
CMCC took a 15-game winning streak and another YSCC title into the USCAA tournament and won all three games by double digits. Morong was named the USCAA Division II coach of the year as the Mustangs captured the first title in school history.
Everything just came together.
“We’ve had some pretty good teams here before, and I would say we may have even had more talented teams here before that didn’t win the national championship,” Morong said. “This team was really selfless. Everyone bought into their roles and they were always fighting for more.
“Everyone felt important and everyone made each other feel important. I think that was really a key. I think if you ask the last player off our bench if they felt less important than Brooke Reynolds, who was the national tournament MVP, they would tell you no, they felt as equal a part as she did to the team’s success. When you get that, you have something really, really special.”
Morong’s title was also special for other reasons. On top of being CMCC’s first national championship, it was the first title by any women’s basketball program in Maine. Programs like Bowdoin and the University of Southern Maine have gotten to the final game, but only the Mustangs have completed the job.
Morong’s glad he beat the Polar Bears and Huskies to it.
“I think it’s great for Maine small college basketball. Take Orono out of the equation, and none of us deal with scholarships or anything like that. I think it’s great for the rest of us. Obviously, it is history — we’re very excited to be a part of that. That was one of my top goals getting here is that we wanted to be the first one’s from Maine to do it.”
It’s all the more impressive because CMCC is playing a lot of four-year institutions. On their road to the national title, the Mustangs knocked off two Penn State satellite teams.
And Morong has made a habit of that. In his six-year stint in Auburn, he’s posted a 149-36 record and has won 87 percent of conference games. He’s coached 10 All-Americans, six Academic All-Americans, two conference players of the year and now has a personal accolade to add to the list.
He’s quick to credit other people and other coaches for all the success, but he also remembers his early years at Morse High in Bath — where his coaching career truly took off.
“Coaching with my father helped me develop as a young coach and taught me a lot,” Morong said. “I go back to the blue-collar theme. Bath is very much a blue-collar town, and that’s always been my mindset. I’m going to bust my butt and work as hard as I can to get whatever it is I deserve at the end of the day. I think that’s something I’ve definitely learned from my community and my family.”