Mike McDonald grew up in a gym.
Now, he finds himself in a big one just about every year in late March.
McDonald is the basketball coach of the Archbishop Wood High School girls basketball team, a job he officially took over prior to the 2015-16 season after serving as the interim head coach late the previous year.
And since he’s been at the helm, the Vikings have been quite successful, winning two Catholic League championships and three state titles, including one of each this year when Wood won the Class 4A girls championship by besting Villa Maria 44-34 in Hershey.
It was the sixth state championship for the Vikings, and McDonald has been the man calling the shots for half of them.
“It’s a great feeling,” said McDonald, a 2002 graduate of Cardinal Dougherty. “The losses haunt you more than anything else, and winning is a lot of work, but when you do it, the end feels so special. We are so proud of the work the girls put in.
“The season is a grunt. It’s a process. The girls give you everything, you have to do the same. That means game films, scouting, pushing the kids in areas they need to improve. You have ups and downs, but at the end of the season, when you win, it feels great.”
McDonald, a former point guard, is a student of the game.
He played at St. Cecilia’s, then later at Dougherty and then Chestnut Hill College.
And everywhere he’s been, he learned from his coaches.
But before he had even learned what a set play was, he was watching his mom, Mary McDonald, who spent 30 years on the bench, including 12 years as the coach at Dougherty.
“I definitely get my competitiveness from my mom,” said McDonald, who helped Dougherty reach the Catholic League semifinals during his senior year. “She loves to win. My dad coached, too, he was more of a have-fun guy, but my mom loved to win. I learned a lot from both of them, but definitely learned a lot from my mom. I got my passion from her, the love of winning.”
In high school, he learned from one of the best, Mark Heimerdinger.
“I use a lot of what I learned from him, different plays,” McDonald said. “But the thing I learned from him that I always use is the competitiveness in practice. He got us to practice hard. I didn’t understand it when I was playing, but I definitely do as a coach, if you don’t do what we need, someone else will.”
His learning process continued through college and then when he got out, he got bit by the coaching bug.
It started when he took over a sub-varsity program at St. Cecilia’s. His team didn’t win a game during the regular season, but went on to win a playoff game.
He then got connected with former Ryan coach Jackie Hartzell, and then he became an assistant for former Wood coach Jim Ricci, and after he took a sabbatical, McDonald coached under John Gallagher until he resigned.
McDonald took a little bit from everyone he’s worked with, and formed his style of coaching.
It’s obviously worked.
“I’m really lucky, Jim Ricci had very high standards for the program and I tried to follow that, and John Gallagher shared a lot of important advice,” McDonald said. “If you take over a program that had high standards and if you put in the time, it’ll be successful. That’s what I’ve tried to do, they had a great program when I got here.”
McDonald is very modest when it comes to talking about his accomplishments on the court or on the bench, but he is very proud of his charges and credits his players with a lot of reasons for the success of the Vikings.
Wood players definitely come out of the program better than they go in, but it is a destination school for talent.
“Obviously as a coach, it’s good as a coach to get girls who want to play and are not afraid to work for it,” McDonald said. “It’s a process, you have to be willing to work hard. If you want instant gratification it’s hard to come by in our program. But you get a lot of kids practicing and it makes you better and more college ready. I coach 10 potential college prospects and they’re willing to work hard. That’s a huge part of it.”
McDonald gets a lot of help from his players, but he also has other people in his corner.
He came from a Dougherty family, but since that school closed, they’ve become Wood fans. He also has groomed the perfect stat keeper, his fiancé Julia Pendergast.
“My family is very supportive, this year was a little different with everything, but they come out, especially my parents and my older brother and his kids,” McDonald said.
“My fiancé is very understanding and she’s become part of the program,” McDonald said. “She loves the girls and she likes to help out. This year she couldn’t be at the games, so she’d watch from home and keep stats, she said it kept her engaged. She is very understanding when I have to watch (film) or scout. She’s great about it, and I’m very happy that we’re getting married soon.”
It’s great to have support at home, but he’s happy to have support at his school, too.
“Wood is a great school,” said McDonald, who works as an estimator at Degol Commercial Flooring in Bensalem. “Everyone is supportive. This year, especially. It was a hard year, I usually don’t talk to our athletic director that often, but this year I was calling every day. They did a great job allowing us to play.
“It was a tough year, but everyone made it work. I’m really thankful to our school, the Catholic League and the PIAA for doing everything they could to make sure we had a season. We all wanted to play, and they made sure we did.”