'A great person': Community mourns Cranston East volleyball coach Meaghan McGonagle
Lauren Milani, the best volleyball player in Cranston East history, remembered how much coach Meg McGonagle cared — not just for her best players but for every single one on her roster.
Theodore Khvang, a member of the only Cranston East boys volleyball championship team, remembered McGonagle as someone who helped players believe in themselves on the court and carry that with them off of it.
Mike Traficante, director of athletics for the Cranston Public Schools, remembers McGonagle as someone who was always looking out for her kids, whether it be on the court or inside the building at Cranston East
From 2017: McGonagle's Cranston East volleyball teams are second to none
According to a Facebook post from her sister Maura, McGonagle, 41, passed away Wednesday at 4:05 a.m. from COVID complications. It didn’t take long for news of her death to quickly make its way through the communities she cared so much about. Cranston East dismissed students at 10:30 a.m. and the girls basketball game that night was canceled.
The reaction from Cranston, where she was a coach and teacher, as well as Warwick, where she grew up as a star athlete, was the same. This was a person who was so much more than a title.
“Little acts of kindess … is what made McGonagle not only a great coach but a great person. She truly cared about every single one of her players and it showed every day,” said Milani, who now plays at Central Connecticut State University. “I, as well as so many of my teammates, are so appreciative of this. I can speak for everyone when I say that we will miss her so much on and off the court.”
“Everyone in the school knew she was the tall business teacher that was really good at basketball and was open to teach anyone about volleyball,” said Khvang, who played on East’s 2017 Division II title team and returned to become McGonagle’s assistant on the girls team this fall. “She was a positive presence and that’s how I felt about her, even after graduating from high school.”
“The family is devastated. That goes without saying,” said Brad Dufault, McGonagle’s cousin and fellow member of Pilgrim’s Class of 1998. “I will say seeing all the tributes online and hearing from former players to see the impact she had has been very heartening for the family and helped quite a bit.
“I’m not sure if her immediate family knew the impact she had on those hundreds of kids.”
McGonagle was a star player before she was a star coach. She graduated from Pilgrim in 1998 as the school’s all-time leading girls basketball scorer. Her jersey still hangs in the gymnasium.
“Having a player like McGonagle on the team is a luxury I’ve never had before,” her late coach Jim Berube told The Journal in 1998. "She’s a player who can score in just about any situation. Having her helps in so many ways.”
“She was a great person. She was well-liked by the teachers, her fellow classmates and an outstanding basketball player,” said Ken Rix, who was the boys basketball coach at Pilgrim while McGonagle starred on the girls’ side. “She was a heck of a competitor and always played the game the right way.”
Volleyball also was a part of her life. While she played college basketball at Siena, she worked her way to Cranston East and became the girls volleyball coach in 2013.
After an 8-10 season her first year, the Thunderbolts were Division II title contenders the following two seasons before going undefeated in 2016 and winning the Division II championship, the first title in Cranston East volleyball history.
McGonagle took over the boys team and repeated the feat, guiding the Thunderbolts to an undefeated season and the first title in program history. It marked only the fourth time one school won boys and girls titles in one academic year and the second time a coach had gone undefeated in both seasons.
“Coach Meg had faith in us," Khvang said. "Even if we were behind or having troubles, she believed in us that we could get through things. She had the team believing we could do anything.”
In 2018-19, both programs made the jump to Division I. The girls, led by Milani, were state semifinalists in 2019 and shocked everyone in the gym that fall when they took the opening set against undefeated North Kingstown.
The following season, Milani and the Thunderbolts went 9-1 and, while they didn’t win a title, Milani was named Gatorade Rhode Island Girls Volleyball Player of the Year. It was the first honor for the program and the first time a Cranston East athlete had earned Gatorade honors in any sport in 32 years.
“I remember being so scared and intimidated as a freshman coming on to varsity, but she always made sure that I felt welcomed, comfortable and a part of a team,” Milani said. “Despite our senior season being turned upside down because of COVID, McGonagle made it a point of emphasis that fun was the most important part of playing for Cranston East.”
“It takes special people to really jump into that kind of environment and excel,” North Kingstown girls volleyball coach Brian Garrepy said. “I thought a lot about Cranston East High School today and I feel so bad for the kids because I think she had an impact far bigger than just volleyball at that school.”
McGonagle had two children, Liam and Amelia, and had already started dialing back her coaching to spend more time with them. Late this fall, McGonagle informed Traficante she wouldn’t be back to coach the boys volleyball team this spring.
On Oct. 21, when Cranston East played at East Providence, McGonagle sent Traficante a photo of East Providence’s new gym and said she was going to apply to coach the Townies instead. Traficante told her that if she did, he’d never talk to her again.
The final two weeks of the fall season ended in a hurry and preparation for the winter season soon started. Traficante didn't worry about collecting jerseys or paperwork or anything else. McGonagle had her program under control from Day 1 of the season until it was done. That innocent text conversation is the last exchange Traficante remembers having with McGonagle.
“I loved her as a person," he said. "This isn’t even about losing her as a coach. That school needs more Meg McGonagles.”
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Cranston East volleyball coach Meg McGonagle remembered by school