Coaches Week: Eighteen years of a winning culture for Field Hockey

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Head coach Nancy Stevens has been at UConn since 1990, and has won an impressive five national championships (Photo courtesy of UConn athletics)

Most UConn fans are familiar with women’s basketball associate head coach Chris Dailey, Geno Auriemma’s top lieutenant who has been in Storrs since 1985 and an integral part in the dynasty of the program. She nudges UConn field hockey assistant coaches Paul Caddy and Cheri Schulz by more than a decade of time in Storrs, but as those two head into their 19th season this fall, they are a part of winning team and culture much the same. Of course, no team is set without an impactful and prescient leader, in this case head coach Nancy Stevens, who has been at UConn since 1990 with three national championships, out of the program’s five, to show for it.

The on and off the field success does not just happen. It is a conscious effort by staff to create a climate of winning and holistic development.

Unison, rather than insistence on individual merit, has created a staff synergy that produces winning team after winning team.

“What gives us value is that we think a lot alike. We value the student athlete experience, it’s very player-centric. We get the players involved in the decision-making because we are here to make them shine,” Stevens says. “It is not at all coach-centric here at the University of Connecticut Field Hockey. Trusting our student athletes and valuing the same things has been what has made our staff so successful.”

In a way, Caddy and Schulz are a bit intractable. They interviewed on the same day, were hired on the same day and have been together ever since.

“Obviously they’ve gotten better after every year and been able to add value. The program has grown with them,” said Stevens.

The ethos of the program is synergistic. That is more than just a buzz word. In UConn Field Hockey, the players are expected to work diligently. When they do, they are rewarded with trust and influence in the direction of the program. Things like voluntary strength and conditioning or seeking out the coaching staff for technical help go a long way in cultivating a winner. But the players don’t consider these things “extra”; rather, it just comes with the territory.

“Over the years, the program has evolved more than changed,” said Caddy. “I feel that the coaches along with the players who have been through our program have been successful in creating a culture where the players and the coaches drive the standards together and are proud to work daily at an elite level.”

This has bred an internal comfortability and confidence. Outside of finals week, it is the norm for players to be popping in and out of the team suite that backs up to Sherman Field in the rear of Guyer Gym. An open-door policy allows the players to come in and talk hockey, school or life in general.

It is a conscious effort to have the players so involved. Along with that comfortability and confidence, the staff wants, in fact depends, on an intelligent, knowledgeable team.

“As a staff we are most definitely player-centered in our approach,” said Caddy, who focuses on technical development and coaching the defense. “Our focus is creating practices that empower the athletes to think about what they are doing, why they are doing it, what works and how we can repeat these actions at an elite level in competition.”

Give a man a fish? Not in this program. The staff’s process involves asking a lot of questions so that the players are mentally stimulated and challenged, learning through their answers. They have found that a thinking team is a responsible team, and not only does it translate onto the field, but life off the turf as well.

“Nancy encourages the players to make decisions based on the thought—is this going to make me a champion? If not don’t do it,” Caddy said. “You can see that elite sport is about making great decisions in pressure situations. We have an environment that creates thought for the athletes rather than us simply telling them what to do I am convinced this helps them make decisions in life with a bit more thought as well.”

Caddy and Schulz both improve in their own ways too. They both have, and continue to be, involved with USA Field Hockey across their spectrum of teams where they pick up new drills and tidbits of use. When they are scouting, they abide by the Stevens adage of “take a little bit of their magic”—essentially, learn from what others do well.

Nearly two decades is a lot time, but complacency and stagnation are not an issue. Competition and the cyclical nature of a college roster keep things fresh.

“We’re all competitive people. We’ll butt heads on things. If one of us has the blue team and one has the white team in practice, it can get intense,” said Caddy. “I think our competitive nature just makes it impossible for us to take our foot off the pedal.”

“You also get different players and that changes the dynamic every year,” said Schulz, the goalie coach and operations coordinator. “You get the kid who is super shy, or has the confidence. It’s how you get that group to mesh every year.”

Staff cohesion is needed as well. All three contribute to opponent scouting. All three contribute to the practice plan. All three are invested in the student athlete experience. And all three complete a coaching dynamic that, as evidenced by their massive success, has created a juggernaut of a competitor in the NCAA.

“We’re all on the same page. If one of us wants to make a change tactically or something we will all get together as a staff and talk about it,” said Schulz. “I think that is different from most programs in the country. I don’t know many programs that spend as much time being together on what they’re looking for.”

Before Caddy and Schulz arrived, the program was still achieving. The year prior they were a Final Four team who was ranked No. 1 in the country for a time. But their presence has helped put the Huskies over the top, winning multiple national championships.

It didn’t come immediately. That 2000 Final Four team before them ended up begetting an initial season where the Huskies failed to even qualify for The Big East tournament, in part due to graduation and injuries, but also stemming from the fact the new staff was trying to find their groove.

Now, in symbiosis with their players, they have it nearly down to a science.

“Everyone has their own niche, and they’re really good at it,” says rising senior captain Antonia Tiedtke. “They don’t get bored with each other. They’re really competitive, they challenge each other.”

“It’s just the kind of student athletes we get to work with. They work hard, they’re really good students and that makes it fun to do what we do,” said Stevens as to why the staff has been so cohesive for so long.

Those student athletes targeted in the recruiting process are competitive, hardworking and respectful. It’s not always perfect. Suboptimal decisions are made, but both players and coaches stress that it is their ability to learn from them, and communicate with one another on how to be better, that makes the difference.

“They’re all willing to help you with whatever you need,” said starting goalie and redshirt freshman Cheyenne Sprecher. “Not a lot of teams have that. The culture is like a big family.”

Part of making that UConn family means including the actual families. Schulz handles the communication with parents, giving them as much information as possible so that they are comfortable. Schedules, hotels, directions, dinners and more. That connectivity leads to relationships that matter as much as the hockey.

“The planning of the practices isn’t nearly as important as the team cohesion,” says Schulz. “She’s [Stevens] really been brilliant on getting us all in-sync which helps the team.”

Families have fun. Players stress there is a good balance between fun and seriousness in whatever the program does.

Case in point: last semester seniors Amelia Iacobucci and Cecile Pieper, at Iacobucci’s challenging, took on Caddy and Stevens in a badminton game. No leniency was shown, and the coaches won. A week later it was a rematch of Caddy and Piper against Iacobucci and Stevens. There are not many places where the coaches are going to do that if there isn’t that family culture, but the team embraces competition, and the staff knows they aren’t above reproach on that front.

Outside of recreational competition, they do know when to let the players lead. The staff is lauded for running measured practices and allowing player feedback on health and fatigue dictate the team workload during the season. They also know student precedes athlete in “student athlete”

“Nancy always emphasizes school is first,” said Tiedtke. “During finals week they help us with all the resources here. Mental health and stress, all that kind of stuff, too. School always has and always will be important here because at the end of the day that’s our future, not field hockey.”

Tiedtke still has one more season left, and along with the coaching staff, will continue an annual pursuit for another national title alongside one another in the fall of 2019. UConn has been very good for a long time as their infrastructure, built by Stevens, Schulz and Caddy, pushes them over the top. With a set of knowledge and savvy grown over their near two decades together, it doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.

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