Jessie Westrick didn’t know how spoiled she was with soccer until she went some place else.
She was not a star and wasn’t even ensconced in one position during her career with the State College girls’ program, but she still went on to play for a season at Penn State’s Behrend Campus in Erie.
She figured the college level, even at Division III, would have a better coach than in high school, better than Kevin Morooney.
“He ruined me for other coaches,” Westrick said. “It fell so far below my expectations.”
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Westrick was not alone in realizing how good the soccer experience has been playing for Morooney’s Lady Little Lion program, but the list will not grow any longer.
After a quarter century on the sidelines, Morooney has decided he can no longer juggle his regular job with the needs of the varsity soccer program. He turned in his resignation to the school this week, and informed his team and many of the program’s alumni Tuesday night.
“The demands of my fulltime job have gotten increasingly complex over time,” Morooney said. “My longevity with the program also has incoming girls to the program thinking differently about me than when I was 25 – ‘What does this old man know?’”
The old man knows a lot.
It starts with the wins – all 368 of them, which is more than all but one girls’ coach in the entire state. Only Hampton’s Frank Christy, at well past 400, has more than Morooney.
He also has been consistently successful, with a 368-109-29 record and .727 win percentage.
During his tenure, the Lady Little Lions have never had a losing record, and every season since 1991 have had double-digit win totals. They have been in the District 6 or regional championship game each of the last 23 seasons, with 15 wins in those games and the last seven straight district crowns.
The team has advanced to the state semifinals twice and the quarterfinals four times, and he was the 2001 Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association Class AAA Coach of the Year. The program also has sent more than 50 women to teams beyond high school, some to college club teams, some in Division III and some at major Division I institutions like Penn State, Northwestern and Pittsburgh.
But the reason for the success goes far beyond striking a ball and setting up a defense.
“He wouldn’t let us off the hook with just a ‘W,’” Westrick said. “He wanted it to be better than that for us.”
That’s one of the main reasons Westrick, who described her position as a “utility player,” only lasted one year on her college team. She expected so much more from her teammates and coach, whom she felt lacked an ability to communicate with female athletes.
“(The coach) didn’t invest the time to get to know the players,” Westrick said. “That created the success we felt with the State High team, whether we were winning or not. Having a coach that cared so much about the team on and off the field is just an incredible experience.”
It’s the passion and connections Morooney said he will miss the most.
“It’s about people,” Morooney said. “It starts with the players, the relationships, but there are the parents, administrators, bus drivers, officials, opposing coaches. Over 25 years it’s a gigantic network of relationships.”
Asked to single out a favorite moment, he chose something from just a few weeks ago, long after last season ended at 13-7-1, with another district title and a loss in the first round of the state tournament.
Morooney was out to dinner with his wife, Jean, when a text message popped into his phone from a former player. The message included a picture of the player with two other former Lady Little Lions, all of whom were from different graduating classes and were never teammates, but they had just finished playing a pick-up game together in London.
“Do you know how cool that is?” he asked. “For them to get together a third of the way around the globe, and then to feel compelled to share that with me, was a gift. It was awesome.”
The program officially became a varsity sport at State College in 1988 with Denny Hall as the coach. The next season, he was supposed to be the head coach again, and Jean Morooney was hired as the assistant coach, but Hall resigned before the season. Jean Morooney became the head coach, and she asked her husband of one year, Kevin, to be her assistant. They flipped roles the next season, and the run began.
Kevin Morooney did step aside for one season, with Sarah Taylor taking over in 1998, but she left the next year.
That season he didn’t attend any games until the playoffs, and he’s not planning to go to any outings this fall.
“It’s going to be somebody else’s (program) now,” Morooney said. “I need to give space to others to make their mark.”
He also knows how much he will miss the game this fall.
“In August when it starts up, that’s the most arduous time for me,” Morooney said. “It’s also the most important time. And then definitely, oh my God, by the end of October, that’s so fun.”
He has framed this move as a resignation and not retirement, leaving the door open a tiny sliver for the possibility of a return, “but I wouldn’t count on that,” he said.
Morooney is the vice provost for information technology at Penn State. It requires long hours and some travel, and while there has been no pressure put on him to leave the soccer sideline, he feels the demands of both have grown too much.
“If I could just show up for practices and games, that’s fine and I’d be there,” Morooney said. “But I can’t do it that way. That’s not what we built.”
What he built is a program that values so much more than wins. Westrick said when she gets together with former teammates, the sport and Morooney are frequent topics. They also make a point of getting together with the coach every now and then.
“We talk about how lucky we were to be a part of a team with a coach who not only cared about the sport but was just so utterly devoted to the players on the team, and that meant every single player on the team,” Westrick said. “… He just held us to a higher standard than, really, a lot of kids are held to these days, how we were conducting ourselves inside and outside of school, inside and outside of the season.”
State College will be searching for a new girls’ soccer coach, but there will be a lot of qualities that will be pretty tough to find on a resume.
“The program won’t be the same without him,” Westrick said. “So many girls have been so lucky to have him, but so many more down the road who aren’t going to be lucky enough to experience Kevin as a coach.”