Mary Cicerone’s 39 years, 707 wins at Marian: A legacy of hard work and dedication

In her 39 years coaching at Marian, Mary Cicerone won a record-setting 707 games that included six state championships and 18 Catholic League titles. Her philosophy of “If you’re going to do something, do it well” motivated her as a player and as a coach. (Photo by Don Horkey | Special to Detroit Catholic)

BLOOMFIELD HILLS “If you’re going to do something, do it well.”

If ever Mary Cicerone would write a book about her life, that quote could very well be its title.

She’s being celebrated for something she’s done very well, that is, becoming the first female coach in the history of high school girls basketball in Michigan to win 700 games.

She coached the Marian Mustangs for 39 years — beginning in September 1983 and ending with win No. 707 on March 2, 2022, a 56-31 victory over North Farmington.

Two nights later, her career officially closed with a 46-35 loss to West Bloomfield. That was only loss No. 230, giving her a remarkable overall 75 percent success rate.

Cicerone’s history-making 700th win had come three weeks earlier, 48-15, over Warren Regina, coached by the second-winningest mentor, Diane Laffey, who has won 668 games in a mind-blowing 60 years — but who is the all-time winning manager in softball with 1,231 victories heading into this spring.

Cicerone was born some 62 years ago in Coopersville, situated midway between Grand Rapids and Muskegon. The population at the time was about 2,000 (it’s near 5,000 now, according to the 2020 census). She was No. 8 of 10 children — four boys, six girls — reared by Russell and Joy Lillie.

“We were always looking for things to do, pretty much family things,” Cicerone says. “It was fantastic competition, whether it was to see who got the best cereal in the morning or who got the TV. The boys always won that competition.”

Cicerone remembers her dad as being “a pretty good athlete. He held the 100-yard dash record at Coopersville High School for years and years from 1939 until somebody broke it in about 1976 or '77. He was a good football player, too. Just a competitor. All my brothers played high school sports.”

“Dad and Mom were very supportive of all of us,” Cicerone says. He was a self-employed plumber and later sold the business and worked for General Motors for the benefits.

Joy was an Army nurse during World War II and a registered nurse in a local hospital. “She tried to work her schedule to not miss any of our activities. She was well-organized.”

“When I was in high school, there were only two sports for girls: basketball and track. I played both,” Cicerone says.

Her aggressiveness, competitiveness and mental quickness paid off with All-State honors in basketball her junior and seniors years and a full-ride scholarship to the University of Detroit Mercy.

Asked if “spitfire” would be an apt description of her style, “Yeah, I think so,” she responded. “I love to get up and get after it defensively.”

Cicerone stepped up her spitfiredness for the college level. She played in 117 games (started 115) in four years. Gaining a reputation as one of the finest point guards in UDM history, she scored 1,035 career points (8.8 average), 486 assists and 333 steals, all totals that remain among the Titans’ all-time best individual performances. She won the 1982 President’s Award as Detroit Mercy’s most outstanding female student-athlete and was inducted into the Titans Hall of Fame in 2007.

“All throughout college,” Cicerone says, “I felt I wanted to continue with basketball in a coaching kind of way. I wanted to stay in sports. When the opportunity (to coach the junior varsity at Marian) came, I quickly jumped at it.”

The next year, 1983, “the varsity job and teaching (physical education) job opened, I got it and, that’s all she wrote from there on in,” Cicerone says.

“I wanted to maintain that same philosophy in coaching,” she says, “and convey it to my players: Get after it. If you’re going to do something, do it well. Are you working hard or are you hardly working? Mom and dad taught us to do it to the best of your ability.”

Cicerone became a student of the game learning how to coach. “Í didn’t have anyone I particularly looked up to. I went to clinics, bought books and tapes, watched a lot of basketball. Took things from that guy, something from another guy, something from Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight, Tom Izzo. I Google a lot of sources now, but back then just a lot of books.”

She says, “I was going to work hard, so my kids were going to work hard, too. You can be the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have the athletes, it can be hard. The first year we had good athletes. They just weren’t very good basketball players.”

Basketball at Marian had girls who wanted to play, but who didn’t put much time into it outside of the season.

“We had a couple of good players who came to Marian who were serious,” Cicerone says. “Kathy Phillips was one. She was 6-foot-3. She worked at it. Jennifer Shasky followed her. I think having Kathy on the team got Jennifer to think deciding between Marian and Mercy.

“Jennifer came to Marian,” Cicerone says, “because she knew Kathy would get a lot of college coaches to come and look at her and Jennifer really wanted to play at the next level, too.

“I give those two credit. Other great athletes came in those first years feeding off that from there on in.”

Phillips graduated in 1988 and went on to Penn State, where she became a member of the university's 1,000-point club with 1,295 career points and played an integral part of Penn State's first-ever No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll in 1991. Since 2011, Kathy (Phillips) Drysdale has been the Penn State team’s marketing manager.

Jennifer (Shasky) Calverly, Class of 1989 — Miss Basketball 1989 — was a 1991 and 1992 All American at George Washington University. She was a former federal prosecutor who had also led the Justice Department’s anti-money laundering unit.

Within three years, in 1986, Cicerone directed Marian to the first of 18 Catholic League championships, the last one on Feb. 18, and two years later, in 1988, the first of six state championships (the others in 1992, 1996, 1998, and back-to-back in 2014 and 2015.)

Asked about any special memories, Cicerone defers. “Oh, there are so many.” However, the 2014 and 2015 seasons have to rank as unforgettable. The Mustangs were a combined 50-3 and CHSL champs and the talk of the basketball world.

“I pretty much had to throw them out of the gym,” Cicerone says. “Those kids were serious. They wanted to win and soak up as much basketball as they could. That’s why we were so successful.”

She remembers. “On Thanksgiving Day, they asked, ‘Can we come in and have practice?’ And I said, ‘I’ve gotta cook,’ so we came in early.”

Meanwhile, on the home front, Mary met David Cicerone during their senior year at Detroit Mercy, and they married in 1988. He owns Midwest Auto Accessories in Madison Heights. They are parents of Anina, 31, and Russell, 28, both of whom became proteges of their mother-coach’s passion for sports.

Anina (Marian 2009) won All-State and All-Catholic League soccer honors leading the Mustangs to three league titles, then continuing her stellar play at Western Michigan, where she majored in biomedical sciences. She is a neurosurgery physician assistant in Grand Rapids.

Russell (Brother Rice 2012) led the Warriors to the 2012 hockey state championship. Soccer was his true love, however. He spent four years playing at the University of Buffalo, where he scored 42 goals and 22 assists in 71 appearances. He turned professional in 2017. Currently, he is in his second season with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Only one of Mary’s siblings chose sports as a career. Margaret Kirkham, the youngest, has been inducted into the Western Michigan University Hall of Fame for track and cross country accomplishments. For 18 years, she has been the track and cross country coach at Cody (Wyoming) High School, which this year won its third consecutive state championship.

So, finally, we come to the question: Why retire?

“Because I’m able to,” Cicerone says. “I have no regrets. I feel good about what I have accomplished. I have two very good assistants, Mike Hawks and Michelle Lindsey, who have been with me for 10 years and who would love to take this job. I feel good leaving the program in great hands.”

She adds: “I’m a busybody. I’ll find some projects to do. That’s the plan. I can’t run. My knees are bad, but I like to walk morning and afternoon.”

Cicerone didn’t know at the time she announced her retirement that Anina was pregnant. “Being a grandmother. That’s a bonus,” she says.

On the occasion of Marian’s state championship in 2015, remarks Mary made then are apropos for now as well as for years to come.

“When we look at their picture on our gym wall, I’m going to tell everybody that if you want to get back there, you’ve gotta work. These kids were the epitome of what hard work and dedication are about, and that’s their legacy.”

It’s your legacy, too, Mary. A job well done.

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].


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