Laney Clement-Holbrook sits down on a bench just a few steps from the gym where she has spent nearly five decades building the Oliver Ames girls basketball program into a state power and creating lasting relationships with generations of players. It has only been a few weeks since the Tigers beat Norwood to claim the Div. 2 title, and she is proudly wearing a 2022 state champion shirt as a reminder.
The championship trophy has been paraded through the Easton schools, the players recently met in the lobby and got sized for their state championship rings, and the final administrative details are being put on another impressive winter for a program that has become accustomed to consistent success.
It is school vacation week, so the atrium is quiet and Clement-Holbrook is taking a moment to reflect. This is not an ordinary off-season conversation.
After 46 years in charge, 44 playoff appearances, 19 league titles, four South sectional titles, three state championships, and a record-setting 733 wins (an average of about 16 wins per season), Clement-Holbrook announced that she is retiring.
She is stepping away as a champion, an unrivaled winner, a pioneer, a mentor, an inspiration, and unquestionably (although she would never agree to this label) as a legend.
“Oliver Ames girls basketball is going to miss her tremendously,” said 2010 state champion and current Princeton assistant coach Lauren Battista, “but she’s put in so many years of sacrifice and hard work and giving her all to that program to make it what it is and she deserves to go out as the top dog and enjoy these years.”
Kerry Bourne played for Clement-Holbrook, worked with her as a coach in the youth program, and watched her daughter Hailey win a state title for OA this winter. “She wants the girls to win but she wants them to be leaders,” Bourne explained. “She wants them to be compassionate. She always wants them to play fair. It’s her life. She’s put everything into it. She’s given 150 percent to Oliver Ames basketball.”
It didn’t take long after the Tigers lifted the trophy in Lowell for rumors to swirl about whether this might have been Clement-Holbrook’s last year, and whether she would take the opportunity to go out on top, but she said the decision was actually made months before the season started. She came to the realization in August, after speaking with friends, that it was the right time to, as she put it, have some fun while she can.
“I need to leave a little life left for me so I can enjoy time with the people who I’ve spent my life with in the world of basketball,” she said. “To be able to be free and say, do you want to go to this game or go watch this? I want to have some time to enjoy that because this is a 12-month, 24/7 operation. It’s not like you start thinking about the season the Monday after Thanksgiving.”
Even though OA goes into each new season with the goal of winning a state title, and has since Clement-Holbrook took over the program in the 1976-77 season, how perfect would it be to win one in the final season of a legendary career, to let Clement-Holbrook walk away after all this time and effort as a champion? (And, as a Dedham High Hall of Famer, to have the added bonus of beating Norwood for the final win of her career?)
“It was just the storybook ending,” said assistant coach Christine Hochstein. “She didn’t tell any parents, didn’t tell any of the kids, because she did not want this to be about her and her farewell tour because it’s all about the girls.”
Brittany Engle, who has been an assistant for the past six years and was a star on the first state title team in 2006, added, “I’m so, so happy for her. We were so in the moment that I never thought we’d come up short and then once it finally happened it was, ‘Oh thank God that we can finish on top for Laney.’ It’s so cool and so fitting, she deserves it.”
Creating opportunities and fighting for equality
Clement-Holbrook started at OA as a teacher in 1975. Because she had been a catcher in college at Bridgewater State, longtime athletic director Val Muscato appointed her as head softball coach. She was also named freshman field hockey coach and JV basketball coach, working with Sue Rivard, another member of the OA Hall of Fame. She was also in grad school at Bridgewater State working towards a Master’s in Education (which she finished in 1981). One year later, Rivard retired as basketball coach and Clement-Holbrook took over the program.
OA was a good fit at the start because it was a short drive from the Bridgewater campus, but it quickly became a welcoming place to start her teaching and coaching career, and eventually, it grew into her home. Now, almost five decades later, the school and Clement-Holbrook are synonymous. It is difficult to think of one without the other.
She started coaching in a very different era. Title IX was only four years old. Massachusetts had just recently progressed from six-player girls basketball (with three players in each half who weren’t allowed to cross midcourt). The girls were only given one hour of practice per day (boys got two hours) and games were played in the afternoon, unlike the boys who got to play at night. None of that sat well with the new coach.
“I had a meeting with the superintendent for them to explain why that was,” said Clement-Holbrook. “It didn’t go very well, but it was a start. These kids’ parents are working, they want to come see their daughters play. I’m grateful there was that transition. You see the passion for basketball in this community and, to me, because it’s a basketball town that helped quite a bit.”
Moscato and OA boys coach Bill Nixon created a basketball camp at Stonehill College. Clement-Holbrook added a girls basketball camp to give more opportunities to local players. In 1986, her former roommate at Bridgewater State, Barbara Stevens, took over at Bentley University (on her way to more than 1,100 wins and a place in the Naismith Hall of Fame), and started a camp for local coaches that became, as Clement-Holbrook described it, “a think-tank for anyone coaching girls or young women.” They also started attending the annual WBCA convention at the NCAA Women’s Final Four and did so for more than 30 years.
“It was so much fun because we learned so many things from that education,” she explained. “When you learn from the best, you would be remiss if you didn’t take some of what you learned and try to apply it and that’s what we did.”
Lisa Downs, who has played and coached against Clement-Holbrook during her time at Foxboro, said, “I really credit her for stepping up and fighting for the girls to receive as much acknowledgment (as the boys). It brought a lot more of the spotlight on girls basketball than it had years back and she’s a pioneer with getting the word out and really pushing the issue to get the girls the credit they deserve.”
Downs continued, “She’s a pioneer in so many ways and I don’t think people realize what she’s done for the sport, not just for Oliver Ames, but for girls everywhere.”
There are significantly more opportunities for female coaches now than in the 1970s. This past winter, eight of the 12 Hockomock League teams were coached by women, including four who were coaching at their alma maters and six who had played at the collegiate level. It is a development that Clement-Holbrook relishes and something she has encouraged for years. She was not only the first woman president of the state coaches association, where she pushed for recognition and opportunities for female coaches but has also added coaches with top-level playing experience on her own staff. Current assistants Engle (Marist), Hochstein (Assumption), and Chrystal Holland (AIC) each played in college.
As she moves into the next phase of her life, Clement-Holbrook is confident that her fellow coaches will continue pushing for equality and that they understand the importance of creating more opportunities for future generations.
“Yeah girlfriends, it’s time for you to take it and run with it now,” she said. “We got you to this point, now it’s your turn and I love the fact that they’re as passionate about it as I am. You know you did your job and you know you inspired them and you know that you taught them things.”
Bringing the title home to Easton
“She challenged me,” Engle recalled about the build-up to her senior season in 2005-06. “She told me, ‘You have to be a better leader because there are girls on this team who are afraid of you because you yell at them when they make mistakes and that’s not making them better players, it’s making them play scared.’ Because I wanted to win so badly and it was my last chance, I said fine I’ll try it your way, and she was right.”
Winning a state title is hard. Sometimes the most talented teams don’t win. Sometimes even the best teams, the best players, have off nights, and in the playoffs, you are facing the best teams in the state, which are all ready to pounce when you might not be at your best (and sometimes even when you are).
OA won its first South sectional title in 2000 but lost in the state semifinal at the Fleet Center. Heading into the 2006 season, Clement-Holbrook’s 29th, confidence was high that the Tigers had the potential to make a run at a championship. There was a strong core of seniors, including Engle (who would reach the 1,000-point plateau that year), but to make it work, to make the personalities mix in a way that would bring the ultimate success, both players and coach needed to adapt.
Engle explained, “It seemed like Laney gave in and had fun with us, so it felt like we were all in it together. She would give in to our goofiness and let us be ourselves, so as we got closer to the end not only did we think about our goal as seniors but the idea that this will be the first time and that Laney is such a legendary coach that it will be huge for her too.”
Clement-Holbrook said, “You have to get a total buy-in from the kids that they understand they have to give whatever it takes. I was lucky in 2006 because I had a group of seven or eight seniors and the buy-in was huge.”
She joked, “Before we won that first one, I said I want to win a championship before I’m dead and then we won and it was like, well that was fun, maybe we can try it again.”
After the first title, Easton displayed its adoration for the Tigers. The team was given a police and fire escort into town, parents lined the street to welcome the bus back to the school, and a new tradition was born when the Tigers took the championship trophy on a tour of the elementary and middle schools. It was a chance for the players to be recognized and be celebrated by the younger grades, but also provided inspiration for the next group of players who now wanted the same experience.
“When I was in eighth grade watching that team, they were like our idols,” said Battista, who would go on to score more than 1,000 points in her career and was named Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. “I remember a few of them came to our little travel basketball banquet and it was like Diana Taurasi was there, LeBron James, that’s how big a deal they were to us at that moment. That’s what Oliver Ames girls basketball was all about, winning state championships and competing at the highest level.”
Many of the members of the 2010 state championship team were in the stands at the Fleet Center when the Tigers won four years before. They wore their MetroWest jerseys and winner’s medals and they dreamed of adding their own state championship banner in the Nixon Gym. Four years later, they would get their chance, although not without a moment of adversity in the season opener.
“Our whole preseason was, this is it, last chance, we’re going to make it happen and then we went out and lost our very first game,” Battista recalled. Clement-Holbrook remembered that before the season opener she broke her long-held superstition against going to pre-game team pasta dinners. She said, “I went into the team room at Foxboro and they’re all sitting on the floor in the locker room and they’re all crying their eyes out. I remember walking in and looking at them all and I said, ‘Stop crying, nobody died!’”
Battista laughed when thinking about that moment, “She broke the tension. It was what we needed to kick our butt a little bit and get back to work in practice.” The kick in the butt and the new mantra of ‘Lose the first, Win the last’ worked pretty well, as the Tigers went on to win the next 25 games and bring home a second state title in five years.
“She always has these Laney-isms,” Battista continued, “and sayings that in the moment you’re just like, ‘Oh that’s just Laney being Laney,’ but she delivers it and she sticks to those values in a way that transcends time. It doesn’t matter if you’re coaching a team from the 1990s or today, those same values are what makes her great. It’s always about what’s best for the team and how you are making the people around you better. I’m sure me and my teammates gave her some gray hairs. We know how to push her buttons sometimes, in a good way, but it was such a good and positive environment.”
When Clement-Holbrook set the state record for wins by a girls basketball coach, passing the 633 wins of fellow Bridgewater State grad Vi Goodnow, members of the current state title-winning squad were in the stands holding up signs and cheering for their future coach. The desire to be a part of the OA program and add to the program’s legacy is developed at an early age.
Bourne, who has been a long-time coach in Easton youth basketball, explained, “If I didn’t have such a wonderful experience at Oliver Ames with Laney as my head coach, then I wouldn’t have started in fourth grade talking about how it’s such an honor to play for Oliver Ames, to play for Laney, to take them to games, to go support OA, and then to now have eight girls still from those 10 (in fourth grade) on the team today.”
“It 100 percent is about reaching out,” Bourne said, adding that the current fourth-grade team was in the stands for the title game in Lowell. “Laney is the one who made sure that the trophy went to every single school and got them excited about it.”
Legacy that extends beyond the record books
After the Tigers beat Dracut in the Sweet 16, the players and their families gathered at Maguire’s for dinner. They filled up the tent outside the building and celebrated an impressive win against a strong team.
All season long, the players had talked about honoring the 2021 team, which missed its chance to play for a state title because of the pandemic, and they had written that message on the whiteboard in the locker room before every game. Clement-Holbrook went into the tent to address the team. While they hadn’t yet reached the end of the journey, she told them that she appreciated what the whole team, from the starters to the team managers, had done to get the Tigers to that point.
“I talked about the puzzle,” she recalled. “I said, remember when I talked about there’s something special about you? Look at what you’ve accomplished, and I couldn’t be more proud of you, and everybody here has had a part in all of this. We’re not measuring the size of the (puzzle) part, what we’re measuring is the value of all those parts together.”
There are two common threads that come up in every conversation about Clement-Holbrook’s longevity as a coach and her lasting impact on OA basketball – culture and relationships. Whether you’re speaking to current or former players, her staff, or opposing coaches, they all agree that she set a standard for the whole community (from youth levels to varsity) and it’s a standard that everyone readily buys into. They want to play, and to win, for her and for OA.
The speech on the first day of tryouts hasn’t changed in years. “If you’re fortunate enough to be chosen and to wear the Oliver Ames on your jersey,” Clement-Holbrook explained, “I point to all the banners on the wall, then you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.” It is a message that resonates with the players to this day. In separate interviews throughout the 2022 playoff run, each of the players mentioned, unprompted, the legacy of OA basketball and how meaningful it is to play their part in it.
“She wants to develop strong women, not just good basketball players,” Engle said. “She wants to equip us with the character and the tools to take advantage of opportunities or make opportunities for ourselves. That’s not just talk because she lived that, so I think it means so much more.”
Bourne added, “I was telling the girls, you get to play for a legend. I was telling them that in fourth grade, so I think I made them a little nervous. I told them, ‘You have an amazing opportunity to play for such an incredible program.’”
When Battista played for the Div. II national title at Bentley, Clement-Holbrook was in the stands in Erie, Pa. to watch. It was an unforgettable moment for one of OA’s best players and for her best friend from college and Clement-Holbrook made sure that she was there to share the experience with them.
“She’s been involved in every major thing in my life, especially with basketball,” Battista said. “Having that kind of connection between playing for her and playing for Coach Stevens means the world to me and I think means the world to her as well.
“Just the attention to detail, the team-over-me mentality, the communication, the relationships, the genuine care for the people that they’re coaching, winning is just a byproduct of all of that stuff. I’m just very lucky that I got to experience this for a long period of time.”
The relationships don’t end in March or even at graduation. In the midst of the celebrations following the win over Norwood, Clement-Holbrook looked into the stands and saw the father of former player Erin Sheehan and he was wearing a state championship jacket from the 2006 season. There are always former players in the stands at home games and there is always a host of people waiting to talk to Clement-Holbrook when she emerges from the locker room.
Her smile widens and her eyes light up as she talks about the players’ children she meets doing trophy parades, about having a former player give her grief that she is going soft because today’s team did a drill differently than they did years ago, or about having the youth teams line up at the door to high-five the players as they come out of the locker room for warmups. At the end of the day, at the end of her career, these things will be missed more than results on the court.
Hochstein noted, “She has a relationship with every single player who’s ever played for her. I think Laney could text any one of them and ask for something and they would do it because that’s just the type of person she is. She would do anything for them and when she asks for something, Brittany and I joke that we’re still doing this, you can’t say no to Laney.”
“Honestly, I think, my greatest strength is people development, not necessarily basketball skill development,” Clement-Holbrook said when asked about establishing connections through the years. “You have to change, of course. I think that one of the keys to success is to read the room, know what you had to do, know what the benchmarks were that you had to set because kids are always different.”
Hollywood ending to a legendary career
“It’s not a job to her, it’s part of her life,” Engle replied when asked if she could pinpoint what it takes to coach at one program and maintain an unparalleled level of success for 47 years.
“She invests herself in this. It’s 12 months out of the year. She’s texting us in the off-season, she’s going to Summer League, she’s going to camps. I’ll get a random email about a drill and I’m like, ‘Laney it’s July, what are we doing?’ But, that’s just how she’s wired. It’s such an integral part of her life and who she is.”
Her passion for the game has never wavered. While this was her final season in charge of the Tigers, no one believes Clement-Holbrook is going to simply walk away from the program. They fully expect to see her in the stands next winter and she is still going to be invested in her current and former players.
Hochstein said, “She’s dedicated her life to this. This is her commitment to giving back to the community. She’s so committed and passionate about coaching and teaching these girls.”
None of the players knew that this was it. As Caroline Peper stepped to the free throw line in the closing seconds and sealed a state title, no one was thinking that this was going to be the final seconds of Laney Clement-Holbrook’s storied career.
“She just hasn’t aged in my eyes,” Downs said with a laugh. “I feel like she looks and she acts and she coaches the exact same way as she did when I was in high school in the ’80s playing against her. Her love not just of the sport but of coaching girls…I just kept thinking she’s got a couple more years in her.”
Bourne was thrilled that her daughter got to be part of this final season. She said, “It’s been unbelievable. I’m very, very, very grateful that [Hailey] had this opportunity and it’s been a blessing. I can’t even imagine what was going through [Laney’s] mind that night. She knew it was her last night ever to coach and I wish I’d known.”
It seemed to still be sinking in for Engle, who was a player on the first state title and a coach on the last one. “We were so focused on each possession,” she said. “So I think we were just so focused on each little step and being present for each step that afterwards it was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and then days later we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ The fact that I can be a part of the bookends of her career…I just feel lucky.”
“It went by kind of fast,” Clement-Holbrook said about her time on the OA sidelines. “I didn’t think to myself, this is the last time I’m going to do this or the last time I’m going to do that. I was so focused on the moment that I never really thought about it. Even on the bus ride home from Lowell, I wasn’t thinking this is it because I wanted to savor the moment. I didn’t want to make it a sad moment because we were having way too much fun.”
So, how about winning a state championship in her final game? How amazing was it to be able to end her career by lifting the trophy? She leaned back on the bench and smiled.
“I couldn’t have ever asked for a happier ending. Someone up there was thinking of me. I’m a lucky kid.”
“There are some coaches who walk into the gym and probably know who your starting five are going to be and that’s about it, but she knows every single thing about your team, so I try to do the exact same thing to play her because I know what we’re going to be facing. It’s a ton of fun as a coach. It’s almost like a chess match because you know what they’re going to be doing, maybe not fully, and then you have to counteract that. It keeps it fun because you’re coaching against someone who is so good and has so much basketball IQ.” – Lisa Downs, Foxboro girls basketball coach
“People like Laney paved the way for all these opportunities for us to pursue this as a profession. When she started, I can’t even imagine the battles she had to fight just to get the opportunities that the boys team was getting. When I was growing up in Easton, I always thought the girls team was better than the boys team and that’s because of her and what she put into it. I always thought that was the normal, that’s how things were, and now that I’m a little more experienced I know that’s not the case. I was lucky that I got to grow up in her sphere of influence because she had such a great influence on basketball and 100 percent on my life and my career trajectory in coaching.” – Lauren Battista, 2010 state champion
“I’m very thankful for this year obviously. Honestly, it was a whirlwind and it almost doesn’t feel real yet. We talked about it for so many years, ‘You guys really have a chance to win the state championship.’ Even though it’s so difficult to do, I really believed in them and now that it’s actually happened it’s just unreal. I understand that Laney didn’t want to tell us beforehand but I wish I knew that day was her actual last day.” – Kerry McLaughlin Bourne, Class of 1990
“We say these kids grow up watching OA basketball, they want to play for Laney, they want to play for their hometown high school. The kids really want to be part of this program that they’ve grown up watching since they were little. That’s Laney. She puts the time in. We won the Dracut game and the next day I think eight of our players showed up at the fourth-grade championship game for Metro. Those are the kind of kids that she’s coaching and that’s what she’s teaching them, that you’re part of something bigger. Those little girls are looking up to you. That’s the kind of program that she’s built at OA.” – Christine Hochstein, OA assistant coach
“She tried to really broaden my perspective as a player and it took until my senior year to see the value in that lesson and what she was trying to get across. I gave a little and she gave a little and she allowed me to be the best version of myself. You know when you go bowling with little kids and you have the bumpers on the side? I think that’s what she tried to do my senior year, allow me to think it was my idea but she was keeping me in the lane. High school basketball didn’t make me a better three-point shooter, but it definitely made me a better teammate, it definitely made me a better leader, definitely helped prepare me for challenges that I would face in college and as a coach. I think the fact that she brings so much of herself to the table, her character, and that she lives the values she preaches to us that eventually, she’s going to get through.” – Brittany Engle, 2006 state champion, OA assistant coach