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Smart helps Excelsior Eagles soar to the top of netball

By Dwayne Richards
Observer writer

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

When the final whistle blew to signal the end of the inaugural staging of the Americas Federation of Netball Associations (AFNA) Champion of Champions High School Netball Tournament at the Leila Robinson Courts on Saturday, not only did it indicate that a Jamaican team was the first team to win the prestigious title, it indicated that Excelsior High were champions of the region.

The Excelsior Eagles had emerged from netball obscurity to become Urban Area champions, then All-Island Champions and champions of the Caribbean in consecutive seasons, all under the guidance of veteran netball coach Christopher Smart.

The last two and a half years have been a remarkable period in the history of the school from 137 Mountain View Avenue, as they have moved from being nobodies in the sport of netball, to now soar above the region as the “Queens” of one of the sports that serves to unify the group of islands that dot the Caribbean sea.

After ending her tenure as President of Netball Jamaica, veteran administrator Marva Bernard was called to serve at her alma mater Excelsior High, and how well has she done? Her first point of duty was to bring in Smart as head coach and what a 'smart' move it has proven to be! The impact has been immediate and the results have been phenomenal.

Smart guided Excelsior to their first netball title, the Urban Area title, in his first season in charge before making them the champions of the country in his second season late last year. Upon hearing of the coming of the new regional championships, the tactician then went to work on hatching a plan to add regional glory to his list of accomplishments and he did so in style, before a full house on Saturday evening.

Before a ball had been thrown in the tournament, the confident Smart had said that his team was prepared to go all the way and their first win in the tournament, a 40-26 result over Anglican High from Grenada, suggested that he may be right.

Excelsior played three instead of four games in the preliminary round due to the unfortunate late withdrawal of Toco Secondary from Trinidad and Tobago, but swept Pool B after winning the three matches they contested.

The ease with which they won the AFNA final was a surprise to even Smart himself, but it spoke to the level of preparation and improvement of the team since their moment of glory seven months ago.

“To be honest I didn't expect to win the game by this margin (46-27). I said it from day one that this Excelsior team is at least 50 per cent better than the team that played in the ISSA All-Island tournament last season and it showed by the margin of victory but I honestly didn't expect, especially from the first two quarters, to dominate Holmwood like that.”

They were given a stern test in the semi-finals by Christ Church Foundation out of Barbados, a game that helped to steel them for the final against another Jamaican team, Holmwood Technical, which they had beaten in the All-Island final last December.

“I think also our semi-final game prepared us for this game because it was a tough semi-final game and we were still able to score 61 goals so it really gave us a momentum coming into the final. Holmwood had a poorer semi-final, they walked through it, that wasn't the case for us and I think that helped us in this final.”

Clearly in a celebratory mood after his latest triumph, the 50-year-old said that his players were history makers and regardless of what happens next, no one could take that away from him or his 12 precious gems who had got the job done.

“Before we even got into the competition I said it to the girls. This team at Excelsior High and myself we are a history making group. It's the first team in 2016 to ever win a netball title for Excelsior, then last season, the first team to win the all-island title for Excelsior.

“So we looked at that and we said guys we want to write our name in history, if 10 years from now we never ever win this competition again it will never be forgotten that the inaugural staging of it Excelsior is the first team that won it so we wrote ourselves in history; I am proud of the girls, the deserved it, they did the work in camp, they did the work in training and it showed…on the court.”

The handling of his team during the tournament was spot on and saving his best defender for the final proved to be a master stroke by Smart on his way to securing victory.

“Kamia Daley is our number one defender, the good thing about it is that Nastassia Duncanson stepped up in her absence because we couldn't afford to risk Kamia in the earlier rounds, not even in the semi-final… knowing that we are going to need her against the likes of Holmwood. She is very experienced, she has played against them before, she is familiar with most of the players, so definitely we had to save Kamia Daley and she came up trumps for us.

“But it wasn't about Kamia alone it was an overall performance. We put three different defenders on Shyann Smith because we definitely made up our minds that we were going to run her into the ground. She is a brilliant young lady, she really carries the game for Holmwood at wing attack, so we took out Holmwood trump card… and things just worked out for us,” he disclosed.

With two previous coaching jobs at the high school level which included one year at St Jago High and a third place finish with Bridgeport High in the Urban Area U-19s, Smart has now found a home and a formula for success and written a story that could quite easily become a Hollywood screenplay. It is now left to be seen what the “teacher of the game” will do next.