Trials, Tribulations of Coaching Teams from an Island
It’s close to rush hour and you’re instrumental in ensuring the game between the Leo Hayes High Lions and Fredericton High Black Kats gets off on time, dealing with bridge traffic and backed up vehicles from Smythe Street to St. Mary’s Street.
Or you’re in Riverview, it’s close to game time and you’re hoping there isn’t street construction as the Royals venture across the causeway to battle Bernice MacNaughton High Highlanders.
Traffic, scheduling problems, throw in a little bit of Mother Nature’s fury and many who organize basketball games in the Picture Province can tell you a harrowing story or two. Or three.
Certainly more if you happen to live on an island.
Imagine just for a second what it takes to schedule games when you’re the head coach of the Grand Manan High Breakers or Campobello High Vikings?
Booking games and travel better be done in pencil with an eraser handy.
“Oh, I always have to do the math in my head every time we’re preparing to play at home,” said Grand Manan varsity girls’ head coach Amanda Russell. ‘It’s the same question. So, if teams are getting the 9 a.m. ferry from Black’s Harbour, what time do the games need to be done so they can catch the 3:30 ferry home from the island? Then there’s the odd time the ferry breaks down or will not run because of weather.”
Then it’s a crapshoot.
Weather comes in many shapes and forms when you’re crossing unpredictable waters.
Russell does have a bit of an in with the weather, though.
Let her tell you.
“There are always a lot of phone calls with coaches asking ‘well, it’s giving a lot of wind, will the ferry be running?’’ she said. ‘So I have to tell them I’ll call them back and I hang up. Then I call my husband, who is a fisherman and ask ‘it says the wind is blowing South West at 35-kilometres. Will the ferry be running?”
If you’re not chuckling now it’s because you’ve never been on a ferry.
Ah, yes, the ferry.
“This will be my sixth year living and working on Grand Manan and I’m still not used to the ferry schedule,” said the former star with the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds. “I still don’t have my sea legs, either and probably never will. My players always make fun of me because I usually have to lie down and sleep on the ferry in the winter months.”
Still, despite the remote location, the island teams continue to compete at the provincial high school level or cross into Maine for exhibition games.
Grand Manan is a perennial contender for New Brunswick crowns, falling last year in the final to John Caldwell High Golden Knights of Grand Falls.
Somehow, each year, it works for the Breakers.
“The A level of basketball changes so much every season due to the fact a lot of schools are in small communities, but it’s amazing to me our entire school has 200 students from K to 12 and we always put together a highly-competitive team,” said Russell. “I graduated from Fredericton High School with 500 students just in Grade 12 at the time.”
Challenges that Grand Manan and Campobello coaches face on a regular basis don’t always revolve around the weather and ferry departures.
It’s a heck of a lot easier to schedule road games and put the onus on the Breakers, but for many potential visiting coaches, a trek to Grand Manan is a chore.
Reality, but thing is, once a program has made the trip, they want to come back.
“We’ve been lucky with our team playing in three of the last five Final 12 years, so typically other teams want to play the top teams,” Russell said. “Once teams come here and see how beautiful it is and how it is a great experience for teams to travel on the ferry and see this community, they’re usually quick to come back.”
There are other items such as extra fundraising for officials and ferry costs, making sure the boat is booked ahead of time and crossing fingers there are enough to drivers to carry the Breakers whichever direction they’re turning at the dock. Extra nights lodging because the ferry doesn’t run at a team’s convenience and finding coaches considering so many former Grand Manan players make their living at sea, not exactly punching a clock and able to commit to regular schedules.
Despite some of those obstacles, Russell loves the island lure.
She’s married, has a young son – Lincoln Dee – whose favourite toy is a basketball and loves calling Grand Manan her home.
That’s not changing.
“I have to admit, I never thought I would live on Grand Manan in a million years,” she said. “I travelled here a few times as a kid to play basketball, but even then I could never picture living here. Now, I honestly could not imagine living anywhere else. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The Islanders are the nicest people I’ve ever met and this community sticks together. It is a very easy going lifestyle, but at the same time, the people are the hardest working people I have ever known.”
Same as the basketball players Grand Manan produces.
Almost year after year, the Breakers are in the conversation for potential titles coming back across the ferry.
Russell said the addition of a hockey arena has cut into some of the basketball population, but the hardwood sport is still pretty darned key to the Island Way of Life including tremendous help from her sister-in-law Katelynn Russell.
“Basketball is still huge on the island and we have a great small ball program which Katelynn runs with mini, junior and senior programs,” Russell said. “I find this impressive with such a small population. Numbers on the boys’ side have unfortunately decreased with our new hockey rink opening and we haven’t had a JV boys’ team the past two years. It’s hard to play both sports with travel requirements. But it is amazing walking into the gym and going to games and hearing community members talk about the past and the future of basketball. It is quite amazing to see the talent this island has produced.”
Russell was a tough-as-nails competitor during her years at FHS and UNB, a small post who battled players much taller in the paint, one of the hardest-working Varsity Reds to ever don the jersey.
She was fierce. And as a coach, it’s not all lollipops and roses when you play for her team.
She’s softened a little. Why? Have you met Lincoln Dee yet?
“I thought coaching would be the best job I would ever have, but being a mom is second to none,” she said. “It is amazing how much it can change you. He is now six months old and already falling in love with the same sport his mom and dad love so much.”
Brad Janes is the editor of the NB Hoops Report website.
The website, which was launched in October Janes said, was created to “fill a gap and provide readers with updates on N.B players, coaches, and administrators all over the world.”
“The original idea was focused on players and features but it has expanded in other directions.”
Janes is the primary writer for the website, with some contributions.