Mahar brother-sister connection leads Mount Anthony
On top of heading into the 10th grade at Mount Anthony, Mahar was preparing for his first season playing varsity boys basketball and with his family, welcoming a baby sister into the world.
That was Grace, who now, 16 years later, finds herself doing exactly what her brother did all of those years ago — leading the MAU basketball team.
This time though, she has her brother by her side to guide her along the way.
For AJ, in his first year as the Patriots' head coach, and Grace, in her second year at the varsity level, basketball has been something they have known their whole lives.
"It's been in my family. Both of my parents played. They put a ball in my hand and I started and I always loved it," AJ Mahar said. "My dad coached me growing up. It's just something that's always been around me and it feels good to be coaching a program and leading a program."
"Basketball has always been something that has always been expected of me. I grew up going to all of my sister's and Alex's (AJ's) games," Grace Mahar added. "It makes me happy playing, being able to experience it with my friends. It's brought me closer to a lot of people. I've met a lot of new people playing out of state."
Grace doesn't have really any recollection at all of seeing AJ play for MAU, as he graduated in 2004 when she was still a toddler.
What she did miss though was seeing one of the top players to ever put on a Patriots uniform.
AJ is second on the boys program's all-time career scoring list with 1,144 for his MAU career, trailing only Kyle Callanan (1,281) for top honors. He also is second on the all-time career rebounding list. His 56 points scored in a game against Rutland is a program record and he was a part of the highest scoring single game in high school history, a 149-141 win against Brattleboro.
In his senior season, he was a McDonald's High School All-American nominee and he was named the Vermont Basketball Coaches Association Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Though Grace missed seeing AJ play at MAU, she would watch him play a lot growing up. Whether it was in Rhode Island at Bryant University or Saint Joseph's College in Indiana, watching him play was a major part of her life.
With AJ being in the Midwest for college and living in Florida for a few years, everything has finally come full circle for the siblings, back in Bennington.
Among other business ventures, AJ had been coaching for Southern Vermont College and was an assistant of the MAU boys program in recent years. When his former coach, Dan Sleeman, stepped down as girls coach after one season at the helm of the Patriots, Mahar decided there was never a better time than the present to take over the program.
"When I was in high school, they were very good. They competed for state championships. Every year, year in and year out, they were competitive," AJ Mahar said. "That's something that I want to help build back. I always said for years that I would do this or that if I could get my hands on a Mount Anthony program and when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to go for it."
Taking over the Patriots did have its conditions and Grace made them clear to her older brother.
"The first thing when we found out that the job was open. I told her I was going to do it and she's like 'Well, if you're going to do it, we have to have a brother-sister relationship and then a coach-player relationship.' That was the first guideline that was laid down and I think we've stuck to it pretty well," AJ Mahar said.
Having your brother as your coach definitely is something very out of the ordinary, but Grace thinks it's been great so far.
"It's definitely something that I never expected would end up happening, but I actually think that it makes me work harder because I have more to prove," Grace Mahar said. "It's hard sometimes because I have to separate him from being my brother and him being my coach. It's also easier for me to take his instructions. I think I understand where he's coming from more than I would anyone else. He's always worked with me on basketball, so it's not anything really new. He's coached me even when he wasn't my coach."
The Mahar family is a competitive one and it's not just AJ and Grace. The two have a sister, Jhonny, who also played at MAU and was a standout player in her own right. Jhonny holds the girls single-season record for most rebounds with 284. She also was a part of two state championship teams in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Living up to what AJ and Jhonny have done before her can be hard, but Grace is proud to be a part of that legacy her siblings forged.
"Living up to that is definitely difficult. I think people expect a lot from me, but I also think that gives me more motivation and more goals to strive for," Grace Mahar said. "Jhonny holds the rebounding record and that's one of my biggest goals, is to beat her record. At the same time, she's taught me a lot too. Growing up watching her games has definitely influenced me as a player.
One accolade that Jhonny has that her siblings do not, is a state championship. That is something AJ wants to make sure happens while he is coaching Grace.
"We talk about it a lot in our family. Jhonny is the one that has two state championships. I didn't get one as a player. That's something I want to get with Grace over the next three years with her. It would mean a lot to do it with her," said AJ, clearly emotional with the thought.
One of Grace's teammates who knows all about having to living up to an older sibling's legacy is senior Anna Iannotti. Iannotti's sister Abby was a star player when she played for the Patriots. Abby was a 1,000 point scorer and and led the team in scoring and rebounding every year from sophomore year to senior year.
"It's pushed me a lot. I try to be more like her and it's motivated me to get a lot better because of it," said Iannotti of how Anna's success pushed her. "Jhonny and AJ were both very good basketball players, so in the next few years I think Grace will really step up."
With MAU losing the star duo of Madison Little and Brianna Legacy, along with Jordyn Burke, the Patriots have needed someone to step up to lead and Grace has taken on that role very well.
The sophomore is averaging 15.7 points her game and has been dominant on the boards, as she set the program single-game record for rebounds back on Jan. 12, with 24 that game. Grace has had more than 20 rebounds on multiple occasions this season.
"I knew coming into this year that losing them was going to be a huge factor for our team in negative way and a positive way. Somebody had to step up," Grace Mahar said. "It's a different dynamic. Everyone has stepped up, not just me. Everyone that didn't get as much minutes last year has taken on a way bigger role than they did last year."
Iannotti, a senior on the team, echoed a similar sentiment.
"We definitely came in a lot less confident than we did last year," said Iannotti. "When we started winning we gained a lot of our confidence back and we've been doing well since then."
What's even more impressive about Grace's rise has been she might not even be at 100 percent. She was fighting an ankle injury earlier in the season, and although it is somewhat better now, it still lingers. Her ability to persevere has rubbed off on her teammates.
"She was struggling with her jump shot and I think the last four or five games, she's really starting to make some shots and see them go down, which is great for her confidence," AJ Mahar said. "It helps too at the same time because the other girls on the team also start shooting better. Shooting is contagious. You see the ball go in [and] whether it's you or your teammate, it translates over and lets you shoot with more confidence."
Sitting at 8-6 after an overtime win against Brattleboro, the goal remains the same for the Patriots: improve every day and work toward winning a state championship. AJ believes the talent this team possesses can lead them there, even if at times they might not show it.
"We lost by 49 to Rice. After the Rice game I told the girls, I have never lost anything by 49 in anything in my life," AJ Mahar said. "Call me crazy, but after that game was the first time I talked about winning a state championship with them and told them I thought we had the pieces in that room to win a state championship this year. We're 1-4 and just lost by 50 and I'm telling them that for the first time. I still believe that."
While basketball is a huge part of both AJ and Grace's lives, it doesn't define their relationship. Sure they're coach and player, but they are brother and sister first and that's what they can always fall back on.
"We have a Snapchat streak," said AJ Mahar, while Grace shines a big smile at him. "We're very close. I wasn't always around when she was younger, so it's cool to be able to be here now and be a part of what she's doing and accomplishing and helping her achieve her dreams or goals."
Adam Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.
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