The First Five Seconds

  • Sports   Friday, May 13, 2022   Matthew Harris

Nathan MacDougall admits it. He’s terrified out there, and it happens every time.

You read that right – the captain and one of the most experienced players on the Stratford District Secondary School’s senior boys’ rugby team admits to being scared whenever he steps on to the pitch and stares down the opposition.

It lasts all of five seconds. Then, MacDougall does what comes naturally: he gets down to business.

As scrum half for the Bears, MacDougall is a central figure on the field for SDSS, which is just how he likes it. There is a freedom he feels once the game has begun and the ball is in his hands. His ability to steer his team’s fate is one of the reasons for his captaincy, those first five seconds notwithstanding.

In his words, it’s necessary.

“It’s that whole aspect of not knowing what’s on the other side of the field from you, not knowing what they have up their sleeve,” he said. “You warm up with your team and you talk to each other to get yourself ready. Then you line up and the whistle blows and that’s when you find out what’s waiting for you.”

MacDougall describes the exhilaration of sprinting free with the ball in his hands or making a drive-stopping tackle as things that are great about the game, and says it takes more than a little focus on his part to ensure he doesn’t lose himself in those moments.

“I can’t let the energy become too much for me, causing me to lose my edge,” he said.

For as big as he can play on the field, showing that edge by being one of the first ones to lay a hit on the opponent or barking out calls as a scrum sets up, MacDougall doesn’t see himself as a cheerleading type. Instead, it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff where he stands out. A little pep talk here and there, or going over something with a teammate to make sure everyone is on the same page is more his style. It’s something Golden Bears head coach Anthony Roes appreciates about his captain.

“The way he conducts himself in general, he is responsible, mature, polite, but you get him on a rugby field and the guy is a huge competitor who is not afraid to tackle anyone out there,” he said. “He is a strong guy but not the biggest on the pitch, especially in a senior boys game. When his teammates see him leading the charge on both offence and defence, they naturally are pulled along with him.”

Roes said that MacDougall lets his game do the talking: he mixes strong, crisp passing and great tackling along with excellent physical conditioning and a razor-sharp mental approach that makes players around him want to emulate those same attributes. And it’s those things that MacDougall has had to not only display for himself but also be ready and willing to impart to his teammates.

When he first began playing rugby as a Grade 9 student, MacDougall was excited to be following in the footsteps of his older siblings who had both played for Northwestern’s Huskies. As with everything over the last few years, his development with the Golden Bears was sidetracked by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – he and some teammates got to play 7’s instead of a full 15, and the schedule was reduced. That meant less experience for him and for the future teammates coming up behind him. In total, MacDougall counts five players he suited up with in Grade 9 on this year’s senior squad, meaning he had to be ready to help them while still trying to figure out the finer points himself.

“There’s been a lot of teaching involved as we’ve gone along, but there are times when I’m even still asking questions,” he said. “We’re a lot better now. In our first game, a lot of guys were looking to me and watching what I did, but now there’s more back and forth and relying on each other. They still see me as their leader and look to me for that knowledge, and in turn I look to them for their energy and excitement. That kind of relationship lifts everyone and without it, those first five seconds of the game would feel a lot longer.”

Asked for descriptors of his captain, Roes comes up with reliable and committed before capping off his thoughts on the matter by calling MacDougall a good guy.

“He understands his role in the program and what it takes to be successful – Nathan comes from a family of rugby players that have been a pleasure to coach and get to know over the years,” Roes stated. “There is no doubt that he will be successful in whatever he chooses to pursue in life, based on his attitude, work ethic and personality.”

 It’s those traits that makes Roes believe that MacDougall is capable of playing beyond high school even in spite of losing two years of experience. The coach sees the talent and dedication are there, so all it would take is finding the ability to balance academics with athletics. MacDougall loves the sport and clearly doesn’t want to think about the possibility that he’s playing the last games of his career, but in a maturity that belies his age, he knows there is a real chance this could be it.

“I love rugby and I would love to be able to come back (to SDSS) and play, or move on to college and play there, but I think that might be a bit too much for me when you factor in having to work more on your studies,” he said. “I’ll miss it because it’s always going to stick with me. Both of my siblings were big into this sport, and I got to see my brother, Andrew, play here. That was so exciting for me. He was like my rugby mentor and that made me want to play. But I look at next year’s team here and some of the guys will be back. I know they’ll be in good hands.”