Marion enjoying second act as Mercy basketball coach

Mercy basketball coach Mary Ella Marion talks to her team during a game last month. Marion returned to the Magic sidelines last season, and the Northern Parkway school is enjoying a rebirth.

by Katherine Dunn

On Mary Ella Marion’s office door hangs a wreath made of gathered burlap with little basketballs and three words: Live. Love. Basketball.

Only one word is missing from that wreath: Mercy.

For Marion, coaching Mercy High School basketball has been one of the loves her life.

Through a 30-year career, Marion ranks among the best ever to coach Baltimore area high school girls basketball. About a month ago, she won her 400th career game, a milestone she shares with just 12 other local girls basketball coaches.

“It’s definitely a tribute to all the previous players,” Marion said. “All of them had a hand in it in some way, shape or form, so it makes you think about them. It makes you think about all the previous assistant coaches too.”

Marion laughed when she added that if you stick for around a while, you can win a lot of games.

Magic senior Kristen Edwards said Marion tried to keep the impending milestone from her players, so they wouldn’t feel extra pressure that day, Dec. 22. The girls found out anyway but handled the pressure for a 31-30 victory over Our Lady of Mercy from New York. Afterward, players sported Magic Nation T-shirts with “MARION 400” on the back.

“I thought she was going to cry,” junior Rhianna Betley said. “I gave her a hug. She was very proud of us in that moment and honored to be a part of Mercy.”

Rich Marion said his wife sees coaching the Magic as less about her and less about winning than it is about Mercy.

“I don’t think [reaching 400 wins] is as important to her as it is to Mercy,” Rich Marion said. “It’s that she went to Mercy and played there, coached there and worked there for over 30 years. It’s a dedication to the school itself and it’s a dedication to the program.”

When she took over Mercy’s varsity program just five years out of college, Marion brought the philosophy she learned from her father, the late George Franz. That philosophy hasn’t changed in 35 years.

“My dad was my first coach and I truly believe he instilled in me all the values that I still carry with me today,” she said. “Team was something he constantly stressed to me. He never allowed me to whine about a coach or a teammate. He told me to ‘get back in there and play harder, make yourself known that way and your time will come.’”

After a Mercy career that included the 1975 Catholic League championship in her junior year, Marion went on to play at Loyola College. She called herself “an average to slightly above average player,” but as the Greyhound’s point guard, she scored more than 1,000 points and was inducted into the Loyola Hall of Fame in 1990.

She coached Mercy’s JV for two years before moving up to varsity where she remained for the next 28 years. In 2013, she “retired” from coaching and stepped down as athletic director to become dean of students. The long hours she dedicated to coaching, she then spent learning the new position. Once she settled in after a few years, the hours weren’t so long anymore and she missed basketball.

Marion, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, wanted to find out whether she still had the drive to coach. She talked often with athletic director Nick Gill, who encouraged her return, believing she could restore stability to the program, which competes in the IAAM B Conference.

Marion came back last season and she still loves it.

“It’s great that I can have that change of pace, getting back in the gym every day and being with a bunch of girls that make me smile every day,” she said. “They’ll drive me crazy a little bit in not understanding something, but they are a great bunch of girls who really seem to enjoy being with one another and that’s something you can’t script.”

With a 9-7 record, the Magic has a chance for its first winning season in more than a decade. Marion and the players are aiming for a home playoff game too, but an even bigger game comes before that — The Game, the annual rivalry contest against IND. In its 54th season, The Game tips off Friday night at 7:30 at Towson University’s SECU Arena.

There’s nothing else like The Game in Baltimore high school girls sports and Marion said it is a key to rebuilding the program. Players — and she hopes recruits — love the intense atmosphere, playing before a nearly packed house with cheering and screaming that keep the decibel level soaring for the entire game.

For Marion and the Magic, beating IND in The Game is just as important as winning a conference championship. Marion has won two titles in the Catholic League which merged into the IAAM in the fall of 1999. Mercy won the tournament championship in 1987 and the regular-season championship (in a tie with St. Mary’s ) in 1997, but Marion has won a lot more times in The Game.

Although Mercy leads the series, 30-23, the Magic hasn’t won since 2013, the year Marion stepped away.

To help re-energize the program, Gill brought in George Panageotou, who led Perry Hall’s boys basketball team to state Class 4A championships in 2017 and 2018, as an assistant coach last season to join Rich Naldrett, former long-time Magic JV coach, and Kate Lipka, a former player.

Bringing the program back is a slow process, but with a team that includes five freshmen — three who start — Marion relies on the same detailed preparation and precise practice that she’s always used to get the most from her teams.

When Edwards and Betley talk about Marion, the word “organized” comes up over and over again. That doesn’t surprise Panageotou.

“Mary Ella is just so prepared, so detail oriented. Every practice is planned down to the minute. Game plans, meeting with the staff, having it all down for pregame talks, that’s the thing that I’ve been most impressed with. I’ve been around a lot of coaches and I thought I was (precise about planning), but nothing like that, not to her level,” said Panageotou, whose wife, the former Trisha Henry, played for Marion and whose daughter Lauren is a freshmen starter.

Mount de Sales coach Trish Armstrong has tried to emulate Marion’s program since taking over the Sailors in 2006. Her youngest daughter played AAU basketball for the Maryland Hurricanes which Marion coached for a while.

“I would stay and watch Mary Ella run practice,” Armstrong said. “I just loved her work ethic. She’s firm but she’s not a screamer and she’s very encouraging to her players. I looked up to her, because she didn’t always have the best athletes, but she worked hard with them and I loved that she put them in a good system.”

Marion did coach one of the best players in the history of the Catholic League, Rosemary Kosiorek, who led the Magic to the 1987 championship and went on to star at West Virginia. She’s coached other top players such as B.J. Banjo, Jamie Vogtman, Shannon Cohen, Samantha Hruz, Ashlee Courter, Kaitie Schuyler and Colette Hailey but rarely more than one at a time.

“It’s kind of like a little underdog mentality in there a little bit, because it’s not like I’ve ever had five Division I players at the same time,” Marion said. “We’ve not had that kind of opportunity, so I believe that we’ve done everything with what we’ve been given and tried to make them better as players, as people, as a team, and represent Mercy well. There’s so much to be said for that.”

Mercy basketball coach Mary Ella Marion talks to her team after winning her 400th game last month. Marion will lead the Magic against Institute of Notre Dame in “The Game,” Friday night at Towson University’s SECU Arena.

Marion stresses that she could never have coached for so long without the support of her husband Rich, a teacher at Pine Grove Middle School. With three children who played sports, their home had to be as organized as a Mercy practice.

Rich Marion laughed when he said it’s much easier now. Maggie, who played for her mother at Mercy, is 28 and her brothers Matt and Chris are 34 and 32, respectively.

For now, Marion has no idea when she may finally step aside as Mercy coach. She’s still driven to improve, compete and succeed as an individual as well as with the team.

“I want to get better at doing what I’m doing,” she said. “The moments that I have with the players, they’re great moments and they’re a great part of my day. When it’s time to give them up, it might be time to give up being here. I think those two go hand-in-hand.”