SAINT LEO — Victories were hard to come by during the first 36 years of the Saint Leo University basketball.
The men’s team had losing seasons from 1997 to 2011 and made only two NCAA Division II Tournament appearances in program history. The women’s program won only 33 percent of its games prior to this season and finished with a winning record only two times.
Everything began to change three years ago when Lance Randall and Nikki Jessee were hired to lead the men’s and women’s programs.
“They reversed 20 years of futility in a relatively short period,” Saint Leo athletic director Francis Reidy said. “They did this by recruiting players who could compete at this level, finding student-athletes who compete in the classroom, so eligibility is not an issue, and setting a standard of excellence, which players from both teams have responded to in an extremely positive manner.”
As of Friday, the men (11-2) have gone 81-22 with Randall and made consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, while the women (10-1) have a 31-35 record under Jessee’s direction and are only seven wins from setting a program high for a season.
Jessee and Randall worked hard to change their programs’ mentality.
“When you’ve never won it’s hard to believe that you can win, but when the wins started coming you could see the confidence level go up,” Randall said. “There’s a great deal of pride in these young men being a part of this program and working to get better each day, and, if we do that, the results will be there.”
Jessee said turning her program around has been easy because of the university’s support.
“There’s a passion for winning here,” Jessee said. “People have big ideas here and really want to win, and the more you win the bigger those ideas get.
“We know if we want to be known for basketball you can’t be a one-hit wonder,” Jessee added. “We want to win at a high level and not be satisfied with winning our conference or making the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to win a national championship, and I think we can do that here.”
The Lions travel to Sunshine State Conference-rival University of Tampa on Wednesday. The women tip off at 5:30 p.m., followed by the men at 7:30.