Sports

Xavier Gilbert — a gladiator for women's football

Sunday, May 27, 2018

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Xavier Gilbert, the Excelsior High School girls' football coach whose achievement puts him in esteem company, is very passionate about seeing his players excel beyond the ball park.

Gilbert's success rate of six titles — coming in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2018, complemented by seven second-place finishes in the last decade and a half — is one that is unmatched in the annals of the school's football history.

And his record could be among the best in the history of Jamaican high school sports.

However, his accomplishments go way beyond the school arena, as he has also tasted some success as a member of the coaching staff for Jamaica's national female football programme.

But how did it all start for the veteran tactician who is currently the National Under-20 assistant coach and a teacher and sports master at the Mountain View-based school?

“My first season was 2001 with Paul McCallum at the time... Frank Brown had just left Excelsior and I coached the boys' Under-14 team in my first year, fresh out of college. And he [McCallum] said based on how I operated with the youngsters he wanted me to coach the girls.

“And I remember I said to him 'I have never coached girls before' and he reminded me that I did my teaching practice at St Hugh's, so I should be able to handle it,” he told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

“My second and third year I made it to the finals, losing to The Queens School and St Jago, respectively. but we sought to build on that and we continued to push for it, and I eventually won my first title in 2005 and that for me is one of, if not, the sweetest.

“From there, I organised an eight-versus-eight inter-house competition and I ensured that every team had a first former, second former and a third former on it, because I was looking for the future. So that was a vehicle that was used to select players for the programme and we are now reaping rewards,” he explained.

Since then Gilbert has continued to unearth top talent, many of whom have transitioned professionally and into the national teams over the years.

Approximately 16 of those players eventually earned scholarships to universities in the United States on account of their football prowess, with two others playing professionally in Europe.

And the 41-year-old Gilbert seems to inspire brilliance wherever he ventures. As a member of the national coaching staff, he helped to guide Jamaica's Under-20 women's team to the 2013 Caribbean Football Union championship, and he also had a strong hand in the Under-17 team's feat in 2015.

Despite his obvious successes, Gilbert likes to fly below the glare of the public.

However, with such a tidy record of winning titles and impacting lives it was virtually impossible for Gilbert to remain in the shadows forever.

“I enjoy working with the girls — it's tougher than boys at times, but I am a good listener. I am very patient with them and I always believe in them. I think those attributes make it easy for them to be comfortable with me as a coach, because most of them don't really live with their father and I welcome that role in helping them further their lives and careers in football.

“You have to make a lot of sacrifice to assist them in any way you can to ensure that they are comfortable and satisfied,” Gilbert shared.

He added: “So at the end of the day, it is not about me. My philosophy is that winning is important, but I am more interested in using sports as a transformational tool in the lives of my players.

“My greatest fulfilment is in helping the girls to better themselves by earning college scholarships and going on to do well in life, especially with the knowledge that I have of their backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, former Excelsior captain Natani Tomlinson-Trail, who earned a football scholarship to Bethel University in Mackenzie, Tennessee, was full of praise for her former coach.

“Although I have a new coach now, Mr Gilbert was more than a coach to me and his team... he is a great teacher and listener and is the epitome of a great coach. Being the captain meant he expected me to also perform in class, and that is how he helped me to get my scholarship,” Tomlinson-Trail said.

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