LAWRENCE — When Sue Downer entered the Merrimack Valley Conference fray as a head coach in 1996, let’s just say it wasn’t easy being the newest head coach of the newest girls basketball program in the area.
Over in Haverhill was one legend, Kevin Woelfel and his six state championships. In Methuen, Downer’s hometown, there was another legend in Mimi Hyde, and her two state championships. And then over in Andover, there was a cantankerous-acting guy, Jim Tildsley, who was in the midst of building something special.
Add in the Central Catholic factor, and Downer might as well have worn a bull’s-eye on the back of her fashionable pant suits.
“It was tough at the beginning,” recalled Downer, 17 years and 300 wins later and still coach at Central Catholic.
“Those were some impressive coaches. The similarity between all of the teams was that they were all tough. They all played defense. Their girls dove on the floor for loose balls. And the fact that we were Central Catholic meant teams weren’t going to go easy on us. No way.”
Downer, though, didn’t need to watch the other teams to understand what her philosophy would be. She played her high school ball — then known by her maiden name Sue Stewart — for the now-defunct St. Mary’s of Lawrence and then was a two-year captain at Merrimack College. She was playing in-your-face defense and diving for loose balls when it wasn’t the norm for girls.
“Trust me, I’ve learned so much over the years,” said Downer. “I’ve learned so much this year as a coach. But coming into this job I knew we were going to be tough, physical team that played with passion. That would have been the way I coached no matter where I was.”
Well, Downer outlasted all of the legends that preceded her.
Of course, the caveat to that is those aforementioned coaches all retired, including Tildsley, who coached his last game in the Division 1 North semis loss to Central after spending 18 years at Andover High.
With Woelfel and Hyde gone for nearly a decade, her matchups with Tildsley and Andover have been memorable to say the least.
“When she broke in we played them at Central,” recalled Tildsley. “We beat them by about 40 points. But I could tell from watching her that she would be a good coach. She was driven. She preached defense. I knew it would be a matter of time before she established herself and Central became a power.”
While there is tension between the two schools, in most sports, Downer and Tildsley have never played that game.
“The funny thing is, Jim and I got along very well,” said Downer. “For as competitive as we’ve been, knocking each other out of tournaments, we have had a good relationship. We’ve helped each other in tourney runs, too.”
One area Downer and Tildsley have had common ground is family. Downer, 43, has two children (Matthew, 13; Emily, 11) with her husband, Chad Downer, a former North Andover High basketball player, and she coaches Emily in town and AAU basketball.
“She asked me for advice about coaching her kids because I coached both of mine,” said Tildsley. “I respect Sue a lot. Sure, she has talent. We have talent in Andover, too. But the way you tell if a coach is getting to his or her kids is the way they play. Do they play hard? Sue’s teams always play hard. Always.”
Downer said while the winning is a motivation, it has never been “the” motivation for her, particularly over the last half dozen years.
“I’ve been so lucky to coach so many great players, but more importantly I’ve tried to have a positive influence in their lives,” said Downer. “Katie Zenevitch was not only one of my greatest players, but she and her family have become close friends. I’ve been to weddings of former players. There’s more to life than basketball.”
But ... and there is a big but here ... Downer loves winning, particularly in March, particularly this winter when it appeared her Central team wasn’t reaching its potential earlier this season.
“It’s one of the lessons I’ve learned,” said Downer. “It’s not how you start, but how you finish. The goal is to improve throughout the year. And I really believe we’ve done that this year.”
Downer’s players adore her. Part of it is probably due to the fact that she works as hard in practices as she does in games and they see it.
“Coach Downer is a special coach, especially for me,” said Central senior Casey McLaughlin, who is bound for Stonehill College on a scholarship this fall. “Coach showed tremendous confidence in me even during my freshman year. She has been a great support system for me on and of the court.
“We hit our low point this year after the second loss to Billerica, but instead on giving up on us, she pulled this team together,” said McLaughlin of the 21-5 Raiders. “She changed some of her coaching strategy and implemented new defenses, especially against Braintree, which really helped us get to where we are now, about to play for a state championship. She is an incredible coach and an incredible person.”
Downer said, personally, she doesn’t think she’s changed a lot since taking over at Central after a four-year stint at Reading High.
“My assistants think I’m getting a little soft,” said Downer. “I just love what I’m doing. I really love it.”
Downer’s teams have won one state title. If not for a girl named Nicole Boudreau, that number easily could be two or three. A win tonight would give her two, which would be nice company with Mimi Hyde.
And if her teams averaged 15 wins over the next 10 years, which is about what she has averaged up until now, she would have 450 victories, shattering Hyde’s 417 wins and Woelfel’s 402 wins.
Heck, 15 per year might be selling her and her program short, as it appears Central might be king of the hill for a long time coming.
“I’m really enjoying this,” said Downer. “I think since becoming a parent, and understanding what parents go through, driving 10 different places in a day, it’s changed me a bit. Maybe it has made me a better coach.”
The Big 4 Merrimack Valley coaching legends Kevin Woelfel, 25 seasons, six state titles, at Haverhill High, 402-154 (.723) Mimi Hyde, 25 seasons, two state titles, at Methuen High, 417-120 (.777) Jim Tildsley, 18 seasons, four state titles at Andover High, 378-60 (.863) Sue Downer, 17 season, one state title at Central Catholic, 300-100 (.750)