In the competitive world of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) basketball, individual sacrifices are a necessity if one intends to earn a roster spot for one of Canada’s most prestigious programs. For Neil MacDonald of the Saint Francis Xavier X-Men, it meant hours of highway miles searching for more meaningful competition and a chance to play beyond high school.
Growing up in the small community of Sydney Mines, population of 6,982 afforded Neil all the imaginable benefits. However, defenders capable of presenting a challenge for the 6-10 center were in short supply. “During high school, I traveled to Halifax pretty much every weekend in the summer so I could play with better competition. Coach K (St. F.X. coach, Steve Konchalski) was at the helm of the Canada Games team then, and he had the tough job of getting me to catch up to the other kids” said MacDonald.
But MacDonald’s dedication and Konchalski’s persistence paid dividends as Neil spurned such schools as Penn State and New Mexico in selecting the rural Antigonish, Nova Scotia university to hone his skills. He’s since blossomed into one of the nation’s premier big men, playing starring roles for the X-Men who have captured the tough Atlantic University Sport championship banner for the past two seasons.
For the second straight season, MacDonald and the X-Men lost a heartbreaker to the eventual champion Carleton Ravens at the Final 10, but Neil showed the country how his game has evolved in knocking down 29 points as his team fought back from a 16 point half-time deficit only to fall short at the buzzer in a 67-65 Carleton victory. Many observers commented that he was in a zone and could score seemingly at will, but MacDonald downplays it.
“I don’t know if I’d call it the zone. It was more about me having a very frustrating game the night before and I felt like I had something to prove, along with the fact that Carleton was the team that knocked us off the year before. I guess I could say that I knew I needed to have a big game in order for us to win, and the guys got me the ball in great position to score. 29 points really isn’t satisfying at all because I’d take 0 points and a win over that any day.”
It comes as no surprise that someone with such a mindset credits his coach for X’s success. “Coach K is the primary reason that I chose X in the first place. Being able to play under a coach with so much experience at all levels is very much a privilege. It motivates us as players and brings us together as a team. Coach K also takes pride in seeing his players earn their degree, which is not the case for everyone”.
Playing for Team Canada in the Tournament of the Americas was also an inspiration for Neil, especially since it was held in Halifax. “The Tournament of the Americas was a huge stepping stone towards the development of my game. The competition really doesn’t get any better than that, and now I can look at the game from the perspective of other coaches and my teammates that I played with all summer. To play for Canada at any level was at the very top of my personal goals.”
So for the time being, Neil MacDonald is finishing his 3rd year at X and this summer will be somewhat less taxing than his last one. Neil fully expects to help propel X to the Finals again next season, and he is already looking ahead. “For sure we plan to be back at the Final 10. If we take care of business this summer and come back ready to go next year, and then take it step by step until March, we’ll be right there again, hopefully the way we want it to end.”