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Separating Coach from Mom: a Tall Task

Three O'Neill sisters are expected to be big contributors to the Collingswood girls basketball team this year. Their mom, coach Nancy O'Neill, says she too has to leave it all on the court.

When Ellie O’Neill and her sisters Molly and Meghan return home from field hockey practice, their mother, Nancy, is waiting for them with a host of questions about how each of them and their team is doing.

When Ellie, Molly and Meghan return home from basketball practice, there are no such questions, because Nancy knows better.

That’s what happens when mom is also coach.

All three girls are slated to play vital roles on the Collingswood High School girls' basketball team this season, putting head coach Nancy O’Neill in the rare position of having three of the five players on the court being her own daughters.

It is a scenario the veteran head coach has prepared for, but one she admits, comes with ups and downs.

“Some days it’s really nice,” Nancy O’Neill said. “School-wise, they find that there is a real benefit of having me there. 

“I think the hardest thing for me, and them too, is that we have to let it go when we get home. There has to be rules and set boundaries of what goes on here and what goes on there.”

O’Neill learned the importance of these boundaries over the last few seasons with Ellie, who is a now a senior; sophomore twins Meghan and Molly avoided the trial and error.

“There are moments that I have to catch myself both ways,” Nancy O’Neill said. “I think that Ellie took the brunt of that early on, and I kind of figured out how to manage that.”

Ellie O’Neill has come to embrace the notion of her mom being the head coach.

“It’s fun sometimes,” she said with a laugh. “We are not really allowed to talk about it at home, but we are pretty good at separating mom and coach.”

Ellie O’Neill admits that there was a bit of trepidation during her freshman year, as she wondered if others would suggest she was only in a position to earn a starting spot because her mom was the coach.

Those concerns quickly evaporated.

“I was a little scared that other people would be mean about it, but it really wasn’t like that,” Ellie O’Neill said. “I think me and my sisters prove ourselves because we feel like we have to work harder to prove that we deserve it.”

Nancy O’Neill speaks proudly of her children, knowing that they play the sport because it is their passion, not because they were pushed into it. It’s that notion that makes any bumps in the road more than tolerable.

“Ellie has absolutely adapted to it, and Meghan and Molly are still learning to adapt to it because sometimes I’m mom and sometimes I’m coach,” said Nancy O’Neill.

“They know my expectations," she said. "I have been lucky enough to have been here long enough where they watched me do it. It is really something they wanted. These twins have waited for this moment.”

Collingswood is hoping to make a push for a postseason berth this year, and to do so, Nancy O’Neill said the team will need to play sound defense.

“Defense is definitely my coaching staff’s passion,” she said. “We did a nice job last year and we are coming back with a pretty solid group. We are small, so we have to be able to defend.”

The coach said that the team has done well to buy into the defense-first approach, which is a big part of the battle.

“Once they realize it is our passion, they start to buy into it because we go over it so often,” Nancy O’Neill said.

“We spent the summer working on it and saying ‘We will be able to defend.’ Shots will fall on certain nights, but we are going to defend.”

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