He has either played on or coached nearly 20 championship teams during his career, but Al Hart continues to exhibit a youthful exuberance – a real eagerness – as he leads his Lady Mounties into the 2011-12 campaign. The reason for this optimism comes from an outstanding rookie class and the return of a half dozens stalwarts from a team that has proven it can play with the best in the ACAA (small conference). He is so positive that efforts are proceeding, hopefully, to arrange exhibitions games with St. Mary's Huskies and UPEI Panthers of the Atlantic Universities Basketball Conference.
Hart is widely recognized around the conference for his professional approach, his vast experience and the manner in which he prepares his teams for competition. He has been doing this for 45 years including the past 15 as the head coach of the lady Mounties. Prior to 1997 he served as physical education director and basketball coach at Oxford High School for 32 years.
Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, Al received his early education in that community and later attended Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., and University of New Brunswick while winding down his formal education process at Mount Allison. In addition to having been a tough power forward with both Springfield and UNB, he has played for a number of senior teams, including the Sackville Atlantics and holds a level 2 coaching certificate in both theory and practical.
While coaching at Oxford, Hart's teams won nine Nova Scotia provincial championships and he was appointed director of the Northumberland District as coordinator of all school sports. For all his successes and contributions to school athletics he was awarded the Hugh Noble Award, the highest honour available.
In 1996, shortly after the Mount Allison men's and women's teams were taken out of the Atlantic Conference, Hart was approached by a group funding the ladies team in the ACAA, and he accepted although it means a long return drive from his Oxford home every day for practices and games. But he has adapted to the travel and can do it almost with his eyes shut after nearly 15 years on the job.
During his time here the Lady Mounties have won three conference championships – in 1998-99, 2000-01 and in 2005-2006. Hart is once again hopeful that this coming season will be the fourth time the team moves on to compete at the national level. Returning from a successful 2010-11 campaign will be co-captain Jenny Robinson, MacKenzie Gray, Kayla Archibald and Megan Plummer with considerable playing experience. And it is his newest crop of recruits that brings a sparkle to his eyes and a big smile to his face as he lists some of his "prizes" by heart.
The top quartet on this list includes highly prized Sara McKellar from Ottawa, MacKenzie Hatten from Woodstock, Danielle Broome from Horton and the return after a year's absence of Marlon Smith of Amherst. He says the team will not only boast a lot of experience but has added considerable height, which was a missing ingredient last season.
Training camp will open on Sept. 17 and a busy exhibition schedule includes games against Presque Isle, Fort Kent and Bangor with St. Mary's and UPEI as possibilities.
Asked for his philosophy of coaching, Hart said "perfect practices makes for perfect games." He believes in treating his players as young ladies and while he is strong on discipline "we still have a lot of fun."
As to how much longer he will continue to be the man in front of the bench, he said he has given that some thought and believes he will be ready to hand the reins over in another two years to his assistants - son Doug and Jay Mongrane.
Hart married Beth Campbell of Springhill and in addition to their son have two grandchildren, Kansas and Xavier.
The veteran 6'2" player/coach has conducted clinics throughout the region and just recently headed up the week-long one sponsored by Mount Allison for young women with a limited number of 24 attending.
During his time here he has had three players earn All-Canadian honours, including Pat Thibodeau of Woodstock in 1995-96, Megan Craig in 2001-02 and Megan Dickie in 2010-11. And his teams have made the playoffs each year due, he says, to some terrific players. Included in this group are Tantramar Titan grads Jennie Robinson, Danielle Trenholm and Sarah Sutherland.
After successful playing careers at two universities, Hart suited up with a variety of teams in the Cumberland County region, winning six provincial Senior B titles. Former Mountie Norval McConnell of Moncton was a teammate. Then he joined the Sackville Atlantics, coached by Wayne MacKay, for some great seasons. Teammates here included such well known athletes as tough Andy Kranak, Dick Hayden, Doug Sparks, Lee Moore and MacKay and they advanced to the championship for the province.
The coaching staff devotes considerable time each December in attending high school tournaments in order to recruit top players while keeping an ear out for better ones in other parts of the country. But enticing strong student-athletes to come here isn't all that easy as many have dreams of playing at the top level for teams like UNB, St. Mary's, Dalhousie, St. FX and PEI. However Hart points out that Mount Allison has so much going for it academically it helps to convince some really fine young ladies to come here.
"Posted prominently in our dressing room is a sign that reads Academics plus Athletics equals Success," he says, "and that is our belief – to obtain a holistic education you require more than just one aspect."
So, as plans are formulated, returning players prepare to provide strong leadership skills and rookies bring some new perspectives, the Lady Mounties promise to be a force to be reckoned with and veteran mentor Al Hart will be out front leading the charge for at least two more seasons. He will be doing what he truly loves to do and obviously what he was brought to this part of Canada to perform – win championships.