Coach Karin Leary smiled as she pointed to the many photos and newspaper clippings lining the walls of her office, highlighting the various accomplishments of the East Rockaway girls’ varsity basketball team during her nearly two decades of leadership.
“This was my life,” she said. “This is my life.”
The wall is covered with team photos from over the years and stories about the many accolades the Rocks earned under Leary, who led her teams to 209 wins and six county championships. Over the years, she was instrumental in growing the program and shaping the athletes — including the only three female 1,000-point scorers in school history, Brittany Fuller, Meredith Levison and Brooke DeGiulio — but she also was a rock for her players off the court, many of them say.
“Her love for the game was infectious,” recalled Fuller, who played under Leary from ninth to 12th grade, culminating in a state championship appearance in her senior year in 2006. “Her dedication to the team didn’t stop when the season ended. She was an excellent coach on and off the court.”
Leary, 47, retired from coaching last month. She began playing basketball in seventh grade, when she discovered a passion for the sport. That drive stayed with her when she attended Baldwin High School and eventually became the first player — male or female — to score 1,000 points in the program’s history. She recalled that during her adolescence, she was a point guard, and she and a teammate, center Suzanne Jackey, often played in pick-up games against boys. They were the only girls playing, Leary noted, and they quickly earned the respect of their competetitors.
“We were pretty much the first ones picked,” she said. “[Suzanne] was a good shooter, and I could post up and I was able to box out, so they knew we meant business.”
Her performances in high school earned her a full scholarship at Iona College, where she graduated in 1993 with a degree in education. She went on to earn a master’s from Adelphi University, and began teaching phys. ed. at East Rockaway in 1995. She coached junior varsity girls’ volleyball from 1995 to 2003, and became the girls’ basketball coach in 2000. She was also the basketball coach at Valley Stream Central from 1995 to 1999. Though she is retiring from coaching, Leary will remain a teacher at ERHS. Her replacement has not been named.
Fuller said she fondly remembered the team taking a trip to Pennsylvania for a tournament. Leary also warmly recalled that trip, as well as others to Georgia and Walt Disney World, which she said helped build team chemistry.
Love for basketball has also become a family affair for Leary. She met the man who’s now her husband, Patrick Leary, at Adelphi, and he’s now a phys. ed. teacher and soccer and badminton coach at Lawrence High School, where he used to coach basketball. The couple have four children: Erin, 15; Amanda, 14; Caitlin, 12; and Ryan, 10, all of whom play basketball, among other sports.
Leary said she decided to retire in part because her daughters play varsity basketball at Carle Place High School, which is in Conferece C, like East Rockaway. She said it was difficult for her to have to draw up defensive schemes to attempt to stifle her own daughters, and recounted the first time she coached against Erin, who’s now a sophomore, when she was in eighth grade. She wasn’t getting much playing time back then, and her mother hadn’t noticed that she had entered the game.
“She traveled right in front of me, and I didn’t realize it was her, and I was like, ‘Come on ref, travel!’” Leary said with a laugh. “He looked at me and was like, ‘Karin, it’s your daughter. I’m like, ‘I don’t care. It’s a travel!’”
Erin remembered being nervous about playing against her mother for the first time, but she laughed as she recalled that moment. “First, I was super nervous that I traveled and embarrassed that it, of course, was right in front of her, but looking back, it was a funny memory,” she said. “It was special. I got to play against my mom, which not many people get to do.”
Leary said that retiring from the sidelines would free her to cheer her daughters on from the bleachers, but she said that calling it quits was bittersweet. Retirement had been on her mind for two years, she acknowledged, but she decided to wait for DeGiulio to score her 1,000th point, which she did on Jan. 7. Leary had coached Brooke’s older sisters, Leanna and Brittany, as well, and Brooke said she was honored that her coach waited to retire until after she hit the milestone.
“The day before, [Coach Leary] told me how excited she was because she had done it in high school and I was about to do it,” DeGiulio said. “When it happened, she stopped the game for me and she said she was just so proud of me. She certainly will be missed.”
In Leary’s final season, the team finished 12-8 and went to the conference semifinals before falling to Cold Spring Harbor.
Leary leaves a legacy and a lifetime of memories, but noted that seeing her players blossom off the court has been what has made her journey worthwhile. She said she enjoyed attending the weddings and baby showers of her former players, many of whom teamed up to throw her a surprise retirement party at EGP Land and Sea in Island Park on March 16. Leary is a caterer there on the weekends, and thought she was going in for a shift when it turned out to be a party for her. “That meant the world to me,” she said.
Come November, she said, retirement will start to sink in, when she isn’t reporting to practice. She added that she was happy to have earned the respect of her players. “They’d run through a wall for me, but at the same time, they knew I’d run through a wall for them,” she said. “There are so many great memories that are going to be in my heart for the rest of my life.”