Update Jan. 7, 2014: Nancy Stevens has been named National Coach of the Year by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association in postseason awards announced yesterday. In December, she earned Regional Coach of the Year honors from the NFHCA.
With a Hall of Fame career in field hockey that includes having won championships as a player and as an assistant, as well as playing on the U.S. National Team in the World Cup, head coach Nancy Stevens has a perspective on winning a national championship.
For her, leading the Huskies to the 2013 NCAA Championship – her first in 35 seasons as a head coach – was all about her student-athletes.
“The joy on the players’ faces, that look, I’ll never forget it. To me that was the most important thing,” says Stevens of the Huskies’ 2-0 win over Duke on Nov. 24. “To share that moment with those 23 players on the field, the staff, and our support staff is the most validating part [of winning the championship] – to experience that joy for them.”
During the post-game news conference, two student-athletes from England who earned All-American recognition on the pitch, Sarah Mansfield ’14 (CLAS) and Chloe Hunnable ’15 (CLAS), expressed that joy to the media.
“What better way to go out? It’s just incredible,” said Mansfield, the senior goalkeeper who earned her 30th career shutout and is the first Husky to be a four time All-American and only the fourth to be a three-time First Team selection. “It’s not even real yet. It hasn’t even sunk in. It’s amazing.”
“To get into the national final was the most exciting moment of my life,” added Hunnable, a junior who scored a goal and had an assist in the championship game and is a Third Team All-America selection. “To now actually win it with my family over here, yeah, I’m going to cry.”
The joy on the players’ faces, that look, I’ll never forget it.
When reporters asked Stevens about winning her first championship, she quickly moved the discussion to her student-athletes: “It’s about the players. I didn’t make a pass. I didn’t make a save. I didn’t score. It’s what I wanted for them.”
Back in Storrs, reflecting on the team’s championship season, Stevens emphasized the collaborative effort of her coaching staff and “the team around the team” who worked diligently to prepare the student-athletes.
“Coaching is a collaborative effort,” she says. “Cheri Herr and Paul Caddy have been on my staff for 13 years and they are every bit a part of it, of course. So many people have contributed a great deal to us so that we can stand at the pinnacle of women’s field hockey this season. We talk about the team around the team being just as important – the training, academic, medical, strength and conditioning, the facilities and operations people. It’s a lot of people behind the scenes working very hard every day for us to be successful. I know all the head coaches feel that way.”
A winning team of UConn coaches
In winning the 2013 championship, Stevens joins a number of other current and former UConn coaches who have won a national championship, including Diane Wright, a former teammate, who coached UConn to its first two field hockey titles in 1981 and 1985.
The coaches who have brought NCAA championship trophies back to Storrs say that Stevens’ winning the title simply adds to the great respect they already have for her and what she has accomplished over a career that has produced 20 NCAA Quarterfinal appearances, 42 First Team All-Americans, and eight players selected to the USA National Team. This year, she also became the all-time winningest coach in Division I field hockey history.
“Nancy did not need any validation for her career,” says head men’s soccer coach Ray Reid, who led UConn to the 2000 NCAA Division I Championship. “You do it for the players and the University, but of course you feel something special when you win it. She’s a great coach and an even better person. I’m really excited for her and her team.”
“The greatest tribute to her is she’s had excellence over a long period of time, which I think is the greatest judge in sports,” says Jim Calhoun, the Huskies’ Hall of Fame men’s basketball head coach who won three NCAA championships before retiring last year. “Most important, she stayed with it. She’s been a phenomenal coach. I watched her work. She’s had great teams. It’s a reaffirmation that if you keep doing good things, it will happen.”
Adds Geno Auriemma, the Huskies’ Hall of Fame women’s basketball head coach who won his eighth national championship last April: “When you’ve done all those things like Nancy has, there comes a time when you sit back and say, if there’s one thing I’d like to have it’s a national championship. Not that you need it. Coaches who, because they enjoy the process and enjoy the day-to-day interactions with their players and making them better, are the ones who last longer. That’s the way I’ve seen Nancy’s career. She enjoys the process, she enjoys coaching, being on a college campus, and loves teaching the game. In the end, she talks always about the quality of kids she has, the kind of players she has. I think coaches like that do last a long time and do have the kids’ best interests at heart. You want those coaches to get a championship.”
The next challenge
Her coaching peers also say that winning a first national championship presents the possibility of another winning a second one, and beyond.
“The goals don’t change. Your goal is to compete for it,” says Stevens, who has taken nine teams to the NCAA Final Four. “Winning is difficult, of course. But we’ll continue to compete for it.”
Graduating five seniors – including three All-Americans in Mansfield; National Player of the Year forward Marie Elena Bolles ’14 (NUR); and forward Anne Jeute ’14 (CLAS) – will provide yet another challenge for the 2014 season. However, Stevens will return a core of experienced younger veterans – five starters were either freshmen or sophomores – who have won a championship, including two of the Huskies’ leading scorers in Hunnable and Second Team All-American midfielder Roisin Upton ’16 (ED).
“We have a strong rising junior class with several starters,” Stevens says. “Roisin is one of the best players in the country and a field general for us as a sophomore. She will be a tremendous leader for us. We have talent going forward, and returning players who understand that hard work will result in success.”