Erin Gay is no stranger to the hardwood of the basketball court.
Back in 1995, she capped off a stellar high school career at West Perry with a District 3 championship for the Mustangs. From there, Gay went on to play and start three seasons at Division I St. Bonaventure.
She returned to central Pennsylvania and coached the girls basketball team at Red Land for seven seasons before she turned to officiating for the last 12 years, including an assignment at the PIAA Class 2A girls championship last weekend.
But this winter, Gay once again found herself roaming the sidelines as a head basketball coach. This time it was unlike anything she had previously done as her team was the eighth-grade Red Land boys basketball team.
That’s right. Boys.
She is a rarity in the scholastic level. The number of women coaches of boys sports at the youth, middle school or high school level is difficult to find. And Gay does not know of any other female coach of a male sport in the area at this level.
“When I first took this position, you think how are the players going to receive me,” said Gay near the end of her first season back with the Patriots. “At first I was a little hesitant.”
She was hired for the position by incoming high school varsity coach Don Smith on the recommendation of middle school coach Scott Slayton, a former boys varsity head coach of the Patriots, and with the knowledge that she was interested in the job.
“I knew she was having a little bit of an itch to get back into it, and when she showed even a little bit of interest I went full-scale recruiting to get her to commit to doing it,” Slayton said. “She was just the logical choice. I’ve been around her as a teacher, a coach and a friend. She just has a drive and contagious, positive energy about her that I wanted the kids in the program to be led by her. She certainly didn’t disappoint.”
Gay had little intention of returning to Red Land as a coach for a long time. Her head-coaching stint with the girls varsity team ended after a losing season when “I had parents that forced me out,” she said. It was not a happy ending.
But the allure of learning under Slayton, another former Patriots varsity head coach who was dismissed a few years ago before coming back, was tough to ignore.
“I’ve always admired him as a coach, how he handles a program, how he approaches basketball,” Gay said. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to coach with him.’”
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And there was also the opportunity to continue coaching her oldest son, who she had coached in several other youth sports as he grew up.
With Slayton’s son, Trey, in eighth grade and Gay’s son, Anderson, in seventh, the two coaches worked it out to lead the other’s team. It was an arrangement that worked out the best for everyone involved.
“I told Slayton, ‘I just want to come in and kind of observe,’” Gay said. “I can’t say we’ve had any issues with it. I think, for the most part, the kids understand my background with the sport, so that helps. I think Coach Slayton and I do a good job of almost co-coaching.”
An important factor that went into her decision to return to the sidelines was her ability to remain a working referee.
Before she accepted the coaching position, she checked with her assigner for officiating on the possibility, and the two of them made it work. Gay can’t get to games in time when practices are late, but practices right after school allow her to pull on the striped shirt and continue reffing later in the evening.
That also means a lot more early mornings and late nights for Gay juggling her schedule with the rest of her family.
Anderson’s younger brother Aiden plays on two basketball teams while Gay’s husband Frank coaches the Red Land football program in the fall. He also works every home event at Red Land whether it is basketball or wrestling over the winter season.
Despite the hectic schedule, Frank would have it no other way for Erin.
“She allows me to complete my passion in football,” Frank said. “She’s there every Friday night taking stats and doing stuff. If I can’t do that in return for her, what kind of husband am I?”
For now, Erin remains a member of a very select club of women coaching boys as she helps blaze a trail for the next generation.
“Anybody that spends a minimal amount of time watching her work in practices and games, I don’t think they see her as a female coach,” Slayton said. “I think she’s earned that respect from the players, the community and certainly from her colleagues. Anybody that sees it odd that a female would be coaching a group of boys isn’t looking deep enough. She’s a true leader of individuals.”
“The biggest thing is if you wanna do something, I don’t care if you’re a male or female, you can do it,” Erin said. “Hopefully it sends a message that we can do these things, too.”