High School Girls' Team Is Family Affair

By BRETT FERRY

"The amazing thing about Mary MacDonald is how she's adopted basketball as her family," says Rory Moreis, assistant boys' basketball coach. "It's amazing. She lives it. She eats it."

With both of Coach MacDonald's daughters on her varsity squad of eight girls, it seems more like basketball adopted her family.

This year the coach and her eight players are rolling on a 9-3 season, but there is little talk yet of a state title. Individual obstacles are what the girls are staring down right now.

"We need to focus on each game like it's the only game in town and take care of business," says Coach MacDonald.

"To beat Fontbonne and Westwood," says senior captain Kelsey MacDonald: "Westwood has been undefeated for three years."

In 1981, the last girls' basketball state championship season, legendary coach Robert Nute said, "When a girl walks into the gym she just has to look up and see the banners and look in the trophy case, and she knows that we've had years and years of very successful people. The girls know there are expectations."

Even after more than two decades, the sense of tradition is still there.

"It's a good thing to come into," says freshman Taylor MacDonald. "At first I was intimidated by coming into a winning team. Then after the first few practices with the other girls, I loosened up.

"In eighth grade it's just something to do after school. Here practices are more intense. Everybody's more into it."

With her mom as the coach, Taylor says, "I needed to work harder than everyone to prove to them that's not why I'm on the team."

Mary MacDonald's thread of involvement in the Vineyard basketball program weaves back through three decades to Coach Nute's first year leading the girls' high school team. The year was 1970 and Mary MacDonald was a freshman at the high school. After four years of playing hoops under the direction of Coach Nute, she went on to play both field hockey and basketball at Southeastern Massachusetts University. Excelling in both sports, she returned to the university to coach while earning her graduate degree at Bridgewater State College. Her coaching career was launched.

During that time, Coach Nute had led the Vineyard girls to two state titles, in 1979 and 1981. Mrs. MacDonald's younger sister, Patricia McCarthy, played on both of those championship teams.

After holding several coaching positions, Mrs. MacDonald returned to the Island in 1993 to take a position as a guidance counselor at the high school. She and David Morris started a youth basketball program for children in third through eighth grades. In its first year, 90 youngsters joined to play in the co-ed league. Among those 90 were four eight-year-old girls - Jen Knight, Kelsey MacDonald, Alexis Russillo, and Krystle Rose - all of them now seniors on the varsity squad. Some 350 children are playing this year in the boys' and girls' youth leagues.

"As a coach you have to have patience. It takes a long time to build a program," says Mrs. MacDonald, who was hired as head coach of the girls' varsity team in 1996.

In the past few years, Coach MacDonald has begun tasting the fruits of her labor. In 2000 and 2001, her teams were Cape and Islands League champions. Last year, when the state did away with the Cape and Islands League and the team became independent, the girls advanced to the South Section semi-finals, the farthest the team has gone since 1981.

Coach MacDonald attributes the team's success to the depth of the feeder program.

"Girls coming off the bench are really performing," she says. "You can't teach heart and hustle. They want to win."

The girls attribute their success this year to team chemistry.

"We're all friends. We love coming to practice," says Kelsey MacDonald.

"Everyone on the team right now is my best friend," says senior Jen Knight. "I call them on the weekends, after practice. We went away to Connecticut together to play a game and had so much fun."

"It's great to be on the winning side, but to be a part of a team is what helps the girls in the future," says Coach MacDonald. "Job, relationships, whatever. Helping these girls with these skills outside the sport has helped me a lot through the years. That's what I took away. That's what life is all about."

"[Coach MacDonald] is tough on us. She knows when to joke around, and she definitely knows when to be serious," says Miss Knight. She scared me when I was a freshman, but now that I am a senior she is the best coach I've ever had. She's taught me a lot, about everything."

"I don't know really any other way. She or my dad has been my coach basically my whole life," says Kelsey MacDonald.

"It's a learning experience for both me and my two daughters," says Coach MacDonald. "Kelsey, as the team captain, does not hesitate to tell me if I am being too tough on another player."

"I'm a little better at leaving it on the court than my husband is," she says with a smirk.

Coach MacDonald feels lucky to be surrounded by so much dedication and support in the program.

"The girls are good athletes who play fall sports, so they are in good shape when coming in," she says. "They are good students who have discipline. They play in the off-season with the boys down in Oak Bluffs.

"[Assistant coach Mike Joyce] and I are on the same page as far as intensity and what we want to do. He was a great find."

As a coach and a parent of three, Mrs. MacDonald is aware of the sacrifices that families of players make toward the success of the team.

When asked if this year's girls' team, with their 9-3 record, could hang with the 1-11 boys' team, Coach MacDonald doesn't hesitate. "They'd beat us. Just because they're stronger and can jump higher. Just because they're boys," she says. "It's like comparing apples and oranges. But, I'm sure [boys' coach Asil Cash] would not mind having a couple of my players on his bench."

The girls' varsity team plays its next game at home this afternoon, meeting Harwich at 4:30 p.m. on the high school court.