‘Her players are her kids’: Coach earns 900th win with girls basketball team

A Nova Scotia high school basketball coach scored a thrilling win this weekend — but none of her players knew how momentous a victory it would prove to be.

Coach Gail MacDougall led Antigonish’s Dr. Hugh Gillis Regional High School girls team to a comeback over the Lockview High School Dragons on Sunday.

“We trailed by 11 at halftime and came back to win it 45-39. It was a good win — and a win that we needed,” she says.

But what the Antigonish woman won’t tell you is it was her 900th career coaching win with the team. Even the Royals players didn’t know until word leaked out after the victory.

Inspirational for female players

Guard Charleigh Clarke scored 14 points in the win. She says MacDougall works them hard and sets the example.

“She dedicates all her time and energy to the team and players,” the Grade 11 student says. “We all respect her a lot. It was really exciting to know it was her 900th win and none of us knew.”

Forward Jessica MacKinnon put up 14 points in the second half. She says their coaches inspired them to rally back.

“[MacDougall] understands how we’re all playing in a sport that’s normally more male-dominated. We have her there to support us and tell us we’re just as good as them,” MacKinnon says.

Tom Fahie of the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation gives Gail MacDougall the Dorothy Walker distinguished service award for outstanding contribution to school sport in this 2009 photo. (Submitted by Gail MacDougall)

Mary Beth McCarron first met MacDougall as a nine-year-old girl. “Having a female role model in that position was huge. That’s probably one of the reasons I got into the field that I did, being a phys ed teacher,” she says.

McCarron played for MacDougall in the mid-80s and coached with her for many years. “Her players are her kids; we became her kids. And the respect that she has for those players on and off the court is huge. She doesn’t only coach; she’s a huge part of what each one of us has become.”

Many of the girls went on to play at university or college and some remain involved in the sport today. Each Boxing Day, players from the last 40 years gather in Antigonish for an alumni game.  

McCarron says the humble coach didn’t want word to get out that it was such a monumental win. She began coaching in 1979 and has volunteered in the position for 39 years.

“She was a very tough coach,” McCarron says. “Tough but fair. She worked us to the bone in every single practice. Her expectations of us were extraordinary. She expected the best out of us and we tried to give it to her every single day.”

Sweet revenge

Mike MacKay coached against MacDougall for 20 years. She later became his assistant coach on two Nova Scotia teams for national competitions.

MacKay, who now works for Basketball Canada, remembers one year they lost a tough game to an Ontario team. After, the coach told her, “You have a nice little team.”

The Nova Scotia team won the next encounter.

“One of Gail’s greatest pleasures was telling the coach of Ontario, ‘You have a have nice little team,’ when we were shaking hands after beating them at Canada Games,” he says. 

MacKay always knew he was in for a fight against a MacDougall team. “You could never take playing the Royals lightly. She has developed so many players who went on to great basketball careers at the next level, but more importantly went on to be great people.”

MacDougall also worked as a sports reporter for the Casket newspaper for 40 years. She retired from that job two years ago, but has no plans to stop volunteering as coach of the Dr. Hugh Gillis Regional High School girls team.

They return to action early in January. MacDougall will be hoping for another win — but maybe not another 100. “No, I’m not looking at a thousand, that’s for sure.”

Two Antigonish basketball coaches have topped 900 wins this year. Steve Konchalski of the St. Francis Xavier X-Men achieved the milestone in November.

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