RADNOR >> Over the past 25 years, the high school basketball landscape has gone through many changes. While many schools have changed coaches throughout this period, Academy of Notre Dame coach Mary Beth McNichol has been a constant for all of the young women who have donned the Irish uniform.
As a young coach taking over a successful program, McNichol assumed the coaching duties with many of the same thoughts young coaches often have – “Can I do this?”
“I was nervous because I had never coached high school basketball before,” said McNichol prior to her team’s 60-37 win over Lansdale Catholic Jan. 31 in the Blue Chip Showcase at SpringFord High School.
On Jan. 22, prior to the Agnes Irwin game, the Notre Dame community honored that same once nervous coach who is celebrating her 25th year at the helm of a program she has left an indelible mark on.
“It meant so much that my colleagues came out to be part of a special night,” said McNichol. “I work at the school and the staff has a great camaraderie. I know they can’t always make the games due to their own busy schedule so it meant a lot they took time out to be here to kind of say Thank you to me for being there for the girls.”
“I feel fortunate to have a coach of Mary Beth’s caliber continue to coach here at Notre Dame,” said Academy of Notre Dame Athletic Director Peg Desendorf. “She brings many years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to the position. It was special to have so many former players, faculty and staff come out and honor Mary Beth for this milestone.”
Senior co-captain Caitlin Clark added, “When my parents and I talk about my experience at Notre Dame we talk about how much of a role model Mary Beth has been. Many people ask if I wish I attended a school that had a chance to compete for a state title and I tell them I have no regrets and how wonderful my time at Notre Dame has meant.”
Throughout her tenure Mary Beth has not only produced many fine athletes that have included 31 players (16 Division 1, one Division 2 and 14 Division 3) who have gone on to play at the collegiate level but she has helped young kids grow into young women.
“I believe when people mention Notre Dame Athletics – the first person that comes to mind is Mary Beth McNichol – she is the face of the athletic program at Notre Dame,” said assistant coach Linda Genther, who has been coaching with Mary Beth for 21 years. “She coaches and mentors our players with the goal of preparing them for college academics and for many the opportunity to play college basketball at some level. She has been a part of 475 wins and just as important she has developed these young athletes into fine young women treating every player who has walked through the doors of our gym with the utmost respect, the desire to teach them life lessons through hard work and determination and to allow them a great four year high school basketball experience.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that Mary Beth is still coaching this program,” said Brooke Keith (nee Driscoll), who played for Mary Beth her first season and is now an assistant varsity coach and head JV coach. “I could tell from the first season that she cared about the girls, had a passion for the game and loved Notre Dame. She’s an icon.”
Keith added, “On the court for the amount of high school players that she has taken from the high school level to the collegiate level is a huge thing but off the court she is there for the girls and they know that. She is like another mentor.”
While her career has seen its share of memorable wins, Inter-Ac titles (1991-92; 1992-93; 1993-94 and 1998-99) along with its share of painful losses. While each team and player holds a special place in Coach McNichol’s heart the 1999-2000 team was one of the most memorable.
“That team is probably the most memorable season I can remember,” said McNichol. “We went 26-3, beat perennial Catholic League powerhouses Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal O’Hara and had a roster containing five D1 and two DIII players. This is why they are the first team to be inducted into the Academy of Notre Dame Athletic Hall of Fame.”
As with many schools, it’s not unusual to see players who have gone through the program return to cheer on the current players and reminisce about their time at Notre Dame.
“When the kids come back after being out in the real world either in college or beyond and they come back and say you taught me something is probably the most rewarding part,” said McNichol. “It’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about when they come back.”
Along with celebrating 25 years at Notre Dame, McNichol is also celebrating 25 years with the Billy Lake Memorial League – named after Billy Lake who died of ALS. Lake played for Bonner. Kevin Cain (Billy Lake’s brother-in law) and McNichol co-founded the league.