Rugby or basketball – Sarah McCarron decided she had to make a choice.
Heading into her Grade 12 year at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish, the North Grant native opted for the pitch over the hardwood.
“I was torn every year – how to maintain them both,” the now junior with the national champion St. F.X. X-Women said.
“It worked in high school but, for university, I knew I would have to choose one, and I am so happy with the choice that I made.”
McCarron started playing hoops with the Antigonish Minor Basketball Association (AMBA), following in her mother Lee’s footsteps, an accomplished player, in her own right.
The daughter also excelled, playing at Saint Andrew Junior School (SAJS) before, as a Grade 9 player, joining the highly-regarded Regional Royals’ program.
“It was great. It was competitive and she [veteran head coach Gail MacDougall] ran an excellent program,” McCarron said.
In the spring of her first high school year, Zoe Fielding – a member of the 2006 X-Women national championship squad and St. F.X. Sports Hall of Fame member – decided to launch a girls’ rugby program.
“I never knew anything about rugby,” McCarron said.
Nevertheless, she decided to play the new-to-her sport, with the idea it would serve as a cross-training tool to stay in shape for basketball.
“I loved the atmosphere that they created around the team,” McCarron said.
She noted how much she enjoyed playing with her Regional teammates, including her cousin, Maggie McCarron.
“I helped me get started [in rugby] and it was so much fun,” McCarron added.
Fielding said, after playing her first game, “it was clear that Sarah loved rugby.”
“She had that sparkle in her eye, which is what you want to see in your players, as a coach,” she added.
Describing her as a “natural athlete,” Fielding said, although only in Grade 9, McCarron’s “intensity and determination propelled her into a leadership position.”
“Sarah had a lot of great fundamentals from playing basketball, which are important in rugby, but it was her tenacity that helped her improve in such a short time.
“She is a grinder on the field and expects a lot of herself. She also expects her teammates to put in the work she does,” Fielding added.
McCarron credited her high school coach for “helping learn a lot of different positions.”
“I played #8, I lifted and I jumped – she taught me a little bit of everything,” she added.
Fielding also encouraged her to try out for provincial teams as part of the Rugby Nova Scotia Keltics’ program.
“I knew I wanted to be playing with them, just because of what they were, and that we all had the same drive for the same sport,” McCarron said.
That experience, which deepened her passion for the sport, also fostered many friendships, including with X-Women teammates Sophia Parker and Amelia Hatfield.
“I found that I fit in and I had a spot,” she said, adding – with a laugh – “and that I could keep up.”
When asked where she has improved the most, McCarron said “IQ-wise.”
“I always lacked knowledge about the game, just where I never grew up watching it. Sometimes, I still have to ask questions, but that’s fine because you always learn,” she added.
While in Grade 12, McCarron spent a lot of time with the X-Women program.
“We became really good friends,” she said.
That time provided her with “great exposure” to what was needed to train and work to excel at the university level.
“It got me ready,” McCarron said.
That positive interaction was one of the key factors in her decision to play for the Blue and White.
“I have always been a homebody – I never wanted to leave,” McCarron said, noting her mother, along with several aunts and uncles, attended St. F.X.
Best yet to come
Veteran X-Women head coach Mike Cavanagh said “every time she goes on the field, she gets better.”
He noted McCarron played “great” in helping St. F.X. secure the 2018 national crown.
“Sarah really picked it up. She got the ball, she ran very well off the ball and she got us going in key times,” he said, noting her fitness and strength in each game.
“She always seemed to be the first one at the breakdown.”
Cavanagh added, defensively “she really stepped it up.”
“We haven’t seen Sarah tackle like that in a long time. She was everywhere making tackles,” he said.
Cavanagh predicted there is more to come for McCarron.
“We haven’t seen the best of her yet,” he said.
In her three seasons, McCarron and the X-Women have earned two gold medals, along with a bronze, at nationals.
“Early on, we struggled quite a bit, trying to figure out our group,” McCarron said of the 2018 golden campaign.
“We had a lot of experienced players but we were, kind of, unsettled. We couldn’t figure out our proper roles.”
She described the team’s traditional Thanksgiving exhibition swing through Ontario as a “turning point.”
“It was like a kick in the head. We knew we had all the tools, but we hadn’t been able to put them together,” McCarron said.
After capturing the AUS crown with a victory over Acadia, she noted, they were prepared to go for the gold.
“There was no doubt in any of our minds. We knew that we could do the job,” she added.
Joanna Alphonso and Olivia DeMerchant finishing their varsity careers with gold medals was a season highlight for her.
“That was rewarding, in itself, knowing that I helped my teammates reach their goals,” McCarron said.
In 2016, as a freshman, she did not play at nationals.
“I was on the bench the whole time, which was more than fine because I got to learn from ‘Big Red’ (Carolyn Williams) and Ellen (Murphy), which helped me become the player that I am today,” she said.
This year, McCarron was a key contributor.
“Playing makes a difference,” she said.
When it comes to reaching the pinnacle, for a second time, McCarron noted “I don’t know how to explain the feeling.”
“It was amazing – the fireworks, the music and everything. I am not sure if it has kicked in yet,” she said.
McCarron will return for her senior season in 2019.
After graduating next spring with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Kinetics, she has her eye on a policing career with the RCMP.
“I would love to continue in the sport,” McCarron said of her future in rugby, including coaching, which she has already started.
“I really like it – there is a lot to learn about how to be a better coach,” she added.
McCarron has already started down that path, sharing her knowledge with players as an assistant coach with the Regional Royals.
“Sarah continues to be a leader. She is doing a great job. The girls, naturally, look up to her, and for good reason, too,” Fielding said.