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.”