Shawnee's McGovern top coach

Chrissy McGovern took over a Shawnee program that had won back-to-back division titles, and took the program to an even higher level, going all the way to the Group 4 state final for the first time. MICHAEL BRYANT /Staff Photographer

The Shawnee players said the first days of practice under first-year girls' basketball coach Chrissy McGovern were drastically different.

And awfully difficult.

The team was coming off consecutive Olympic Conference Patriot Division titles and had won a total of 46 games over the previous two years, so McGovern didn't need to reshape everything.

But that is exactly what she did.

More importantly, she took a program that had enjoyed success to an even higher level.

And it all started with buying into her defensive philosophy.

Is it any wonder that the Renegades allowed just 39.5 points per game this season?

For all that success, McGovern has been named The Inquirer's South Jersey Coach of the Year for girls' basketball.

The players aren't surprised at what they accomplished, especially with what they went through in practice. Yet McGovern made the players believe that sometimes the offensive game won't click, but defense can be a constant.

And it led to a 26-5 season that included a third straight division title, a South Jersey Group 4 championship, and the first Group 4 state-final appearance in school history.

En route to winning the sectional, the Renegades defeated defending state Group 4 champion Rancocas Valley, 39-36, in a semifinal.

The score shows how Shawnee bought into the coach's defense-first philosophy.

McGovern was an assistant at Shawnee the previous season, so the girls were familiar with her coaching methods. They just weren't prepared for getting into that defensive stance for such sustained periods during practice.

"She was amazing. This was her first year, and look what she did," said Olivia Askin, the only senior starter for the Renegades. "She transformed the team."

Those early practices took a little time to get accustomed to.

"My past three years, we worked a lot on offense, but this year, it was all defense," Askin said. "In the beginning of the year, it was tough and practices were very hard, but we became such a good defensive team."

Some would say a great defensive team.

McGovern knew that she wanted to instill a defensive mind-set but she also had to tread the difficult line of attempting to do something drastically different with a program that had had success.

It's not as if Shawnee didn't work on defense in the past, but the Renegades didn't spend this much time on it.

"I was a little hesitant to change the entire dynamic," McGovern said. "But the players bought into it, and every day in practice, they worked so hard on defense."

McGovern's resolve was evident during the playoff run when she remained a fixture on the sidelines even though she is expecting her second child next month.

"Sometimes I would ask myself how I was doing it, and other times it was a breeze," she said.

McGovern also experienced success as a player. A 1999 Gloucester Catholic graduate, she was an all-American at Gloucester County College and enjoyed a successful career at Rowan.

After college, she was head coach at Brick Township for four years, and while she enjoyed the job, the commute from her Mount Laurel home was too much, so she gave it up.

McGovern was an assistant at Cherokee before coming to Shawnee.

Not surprisingly, she says she gets a lot of her coaching ideas from her days at Gloucester Catholic when playing for Lisa Gedaka, who earned her 500th career win earlier this year.

"I gear everything to what I learned from Lisa," McGovern said. "She was a mentor to me, a role model, an exceptional coach, and wonderful person."

And now the protégé is heading on the same path.