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LAWRENCE — The first and only varsity girls basketball coach at Central Catholic High School was hired 11 years ago, when the school opened its doors for the first time to both genders.

But it didn’t take that long for Sue Downer to turn the girls hoop program at newly co-ed Central Catholic into a contender and then a powerhouse within the Merrimack Valley Conference and MIAA North section.

“I think that first year set the tone for our program. We went 10-10 our first year,” Downer said. “We ended up going to the Division 4 North final that year and I think that really set the tone for what we wanted in this program. To go to the (MIAA) tournament our first year got a lot of excitement in this school as far as the boys supporting the girls. It was a great segue for the school going co-ed and I think that first year set the precedent for where we are today.”

Today, Central’s girls basketball program has an all-time winning percentage of .724. In its brief history, Central has averaged slightly more than 16 wins per season. Downer’s Raiders earned MVC championships in 1998, 1999 and 2005 and MIAA North tournament titles in 2003 and 2005, losing in the state semifinals both times on the parquet floor in Boston.

Where did it all begin? Slightly more than a full-court heave away from Central’s Hampshire Street front door, around the corner on Haverhill Street at St. Mary’s, the small, former all-girls Catholic school with a reputation for producing bigger-than-expected success on the basketball court. When St. Mary’s closed in 1996, the doors of Central Catholic were open as a co-ed program for many of the former St. Mary’s students.

“There was probably six or seven kids that were varsity members at St. Mary’s that I inherited as varsity members at Central,” Downer said. “The first year there was this a young girl who was a senior, Laura Champagne, who was the most athletic, disciplined player I have ever coached in my 16 years. I was very fortunate to inherit her and she was one of the reasons the team did so well that year.”

For the next five or six years, as Downer pointed out, the team added a win each year and now she has an overall record of 168-64 during her decade with Central Catholic.

The Raiders, already 3-1 this season, have two key players back for the 2006-07 season in senior co-capts. Melissa Lucas, a 5-foot-6 small forward, and Kaylyn Grange, a 5-8 guard. Lucas and Grange are supported by heralded 6-1 freshman center Katie Zenevitch. All three girls are from Methuen.

Before coming to Central, Downer coached the JVs then varsity at Reading High. She played basketball at nearby Merrimack College and high-school basketball for St. Mary’s, which is why she was so eager to accept the opportunity back in Lawrence when the Central Catholic job was offered.

“It was my dream high-school coaching job,” Downer said. “When I was in high school, Central was the boys team we always came to watch. It’s a great athletic tradition here at Central. So I just thought it would be a fantastic fit for me as a coach as far as the type of school that I wanted to coach at, and it has been. I think it’s one of the best coaching jobs in the state.”

Since Downer launched the Raiders program, they never have experienced a losing season. Not too many high-school programs can match the Raiders accomplishment of qualifying for postseason play in their first year as a varsity-level program.

“We’ve thankfully made the tournament every year and I would be so disheartened if we don’t make the tournament,” Downer said. “And that’s not even a goal at this point. The goal is we want to win the MVC every year; that’s our goal. It’s kind of an underlying thing that we’ll make the tournament every year. The question is what will we do when we get there and what position will we be in.”

After playing the South champ in state semifinals two of the last four seasons, the Raiders clearly are among the class of the region and the league.

Central, along with Andover and Lowell, are the established powers for MVC girls basketball. Downer’s Andover High counterpart agrees.

“They have a lot of talent and they’ve had a lot of talented teams, so have we and so has Lowell,” Andover coach Jim Tildsley said. “You got to have talent. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good of coaches we think we are. Without talent you’re not going to win.”

Downer bristles at the suggestion that Central Catholic is able to gather its talent from an entire region, not just one town as with all the public high schools in the MVC. Critics say Central is better suited to play against other Catholic schools.

“People always say Central is so lucky because they can draw from so many towns and so many places,” Downer said. “But what they don’t see is that it’s hard to gel all those kids together in the short amount of time that you have in your season.

“I think that we’ve been successful for a lot of different reasons. … Every player that has come here has bought into what I’m trying to accomplish as a coach and the tradition.”

Lucas gives Downer all the credit.

“She has the desire,” Lucas said. “She wants us to do our best and she wants the best for us.” Downer, who recently returned to the classroom as a health teacher at Central Catholic after several years at home with her young children, said the teaching trickles out of the classroom onto the court. Life lessons are just as important, if not more, to Downer as winning.

“We do a lot of goal attainment,” Downer said. “They keep journals every week of the goals they set for themselves of what they can do better. There’s a lot of accountability on their part and part of what we’re doing is for basketball, but I’m trying to teach them organization and how to be disciplined with yourself. How it will reap benefits in the long run.”

Along with life lessons, Downer believes the girls should always represent themselves as classy young women — including in the way they dress. Attend any Raiders basketball game and you will find Downer walking the sideline in a suit.

“She always tells us life is not just basketball,” Lucas said. “You learn in basketball things you’ll use in life years from now as young ladies.”

“I just think so much of my responsibility as a coach is to teach life lessons and wherever we go as a team we look like classy young ladies,” Downer explained. “I think that starts with me, so however I dress and however I present myself has a huge effect on these young women.”

Having positive female role models is also important to Downer, and that extends to her assistants Karen Young and Elizabeth “Zibby” McCleary, who is the JV coach. Freshman coach Bob Rooseboom is the only male on Downer’s staff.

“I think it’s a conscious effort to get as many females that I can into this program,” Downer said. “I think it’s extremely important to them to see that there are females out there that can be successful at sports. It’s absolutely a conscious effort to have as many females on the staff as I can.”

Have a story idea or comment? Contact Gayle Simone at 978-970-4838 or gsimone@thevalleydispatch.com.

Coach: Sue Downer

Team: Central Catholic High School girls basketball

Years on job: 10 (168-64 career record at Central)

Previous experience: Reading High School JV coach (1992), varsity coach (1993-96)

Playing experience: St. Mary’s High School and

Merrimack College

Age: 37

Residence: Methuen

Family: Husband, Chad, two-sport athlete at North Andover High School. Children (2), son Matthew, 7; daughter Emily, 5.