SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Tonya Mackey says she’s ok being called a trailblazer, but wants you to know she never intended to be that.
She just knows she’s a basketball coach who happens to be a woman who coached the boys’ varsity team.
“Basketball is basketball," Mackey says.
The only coach in New Hampstead’s program history is stepping down after eight seasons due to health concerns. Mackey missed a month of the 2020 season after complications from knee issues led to a month stay in the hospital and being put on dialysis.
“Coming to the decision that I had to give up probably the biggest passion I’ve ever had was really, really tough,” Mackey says.
But she adds it’s the right one, as her absences aren’t fair to the players.
BEING THE FIRST
Mackey never planned to coach boys’ basketball. In fact, she was on a break from the game when she applied for a teaching job at the newly formed New Hampstead High School.
But then-principal Jennifer Topper had an idea when she brought Mackey in for an interview: she wanted Mackey to also coach the boys’ basketball team.
“I said ‘Ok, I’ll try it,’" Mackey remembers. “I’ll do it.”
She admits she only thought the gig would last a couple of years, but never believed she’d have an issue coaching boys.
“I’ve never had a problem with being that person who is the first. That’s just part of my being. That’s just part of me." Mackey says. "I guess I’m a person not afraid of taking risks. So again, when it came back to being and doing this, I didn’t think twice about it.”
MAKING HER MARK
Mackey says she never had an issue with a player not respecting her, and never expected to.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have an issue with the kids, because I was going to accept nothing less than their best,” Mackey says. “If you were going to play for me, you were going to be the best on this floor.”
Mackey says it was that constant, along with her knowledge of the game, that made her gender meaningless to the players.
“The more consistent and the more that you can show fairness, I think kids tend to run through a brick wall for you," she says. "When they saw, ‘Ok, it’s fair across the board. Coach Mackey’s going to be the same with each kid,’ it didn’t matter.”
In eight seasons, the Phoenix went to the state playoffs seven times and won a region title. That run includes three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Now that she’s done it, and proven a boys’ program can win with a female coach, Mackey hopes she’s opened doors for other women.
“It would be good to see other women get a chance," she says. “It just has to be the right person in the right situation.”
Mackey has put in a full basketball career from starring at the high school level at St. Vincent’s and earning a scholarship and becoming a team captain at South Carolina State, to going on to be a head coach in women’s basketball at the high school and college level.
But she knows she’ll most likely be best remembered for being the first woman to coach boys in Savannah.
Mackey says that’s funny to her, because she never thought of being a trailblazer.
She says she was just doing what any teacher or coach would do.
“You see a need and if you have the tools, you jump right in and help," Mackey says. “I’m just happy to be the person that was able to help these kids.”