The Chemistry of a Champion
By Phillip J. Hoying '09
Early on a quiet March morning at the Dunkin' Donuts in Clinton, women's lacrosse Coach Patty Kloidt and her assistant, Mackay Rippey, sat and talked about the future. Their team had just lost its first game of the young season to defending national champion Franklin & Marshall 14-13, but the defeat itself was not as painful as the way it unfolded. The Continentals had led 13-10 with less than five minutes to play, only to falter and lose in the final three seconds. Knowing she was leading a talented team and determined that her women would never let victory slip away like that again, Kloidt decided to call a team meeting — to "challenge them, hold them more accountable and up their focus."
When the team gathered, Kloidt shouldered part of the responsibility for the loss. "She has this ability to look inward first whenever something goes wrong," Kaillie Briscoe '09 says. Kloidt talked about the need to communicate openly, on the field and off. But she also listened, and she turned the floor over to her players to talk out their problems. Briscoe recalls that older players were having difficulty knowing when and how to criticize their younger counterparts, while the younger women were uncomfortable making suggestions to more experienced teammates. Sarah Bray '11 puts it simply: "We pretty much came out of that meeting saying we needed to confront each other, call each other out and not hate each other for it." The transformation was dramatic, Kloidt says; without the need to tiptoe around problems, players "learned how to compete with each other in practice and really get after each other without having any fear of it ruining their friendships."
The Continentals won their next game, then won again. And they never stopped winning. "I think losing that game set our whole season up to succeed," Jen McGowan '08 says. "Experiencing that loss, experiencing how quickly a win like that can be taken away from you, gave us the motivation this season."
Dancing to the national title
What makes a championship team? Extraordinary individual talent, certainly, but the talent has to be fused by the remarkable group chemistry that began to emerge at that March meeting. Academic accountability was crucial; while their classmates were busy studying and taking final exams, the women's lacrosse team was busy winning a regional semifinal, a national quarterfinal, then competing in the national final four — and studying and taking final exams. Spirit, leadership, teamwork, the will to win, commitment, endurance, dancing, love and laughter — dancing?
Dancing. Two months after the stunning last-gasp defeat at the hands of Franklin & Marshall, an older, wiser and better Hamilton team had the rematch it wanted. And the chance at payback just happened to come in the national final. It was pouring rain and miserably cold that Sunday at Donald J. Kerr Stadium in Salem, Va., and both teams were standing around waiting on what is an unaccustomed delay for a Division III lacrosse team: synchronized timing for a live television broadcast. Briscoe looked across the field at the F&M bench. "It looked like they were walking the Green Mile," she said. "They were so stiff and nervous."
And Hamilton's bench? "We were out in the rain, dancing and jumping up and down and so excited," says Tara Eckberg '08. "We had a dance party," Briscoe adds. "That's how our team is."
Balancing academic, athletic priorities
The Continentals had reason to dance. The day before, in the national semifinal, they marched to a 10-5 lead against top-ranked, unbeaten Salisbury University, then hung on as the Sea Gulls inched back. Seven Hamilton players scored in the 11-10 nail-biter; it was the team's fourth straight win against a Top 10 team.
But the Continentals also had reason to nod off. The playoff trip happened to consume two-thirds of Hamilton's final exam week, and many players felt the pinch in trying to balance a team focus, competitive excitement, academic commitments and, oh yes, sleep. One student took a five-hour exam for Professor of Biology Jinnie Garrett's Genes and Genomes course during the trip. Another wrote 20 pages for various assigned papers. Nicole Tetreault '08 set the academic bar high for her teammates; between practice and a team dinner on the evening before the Salisbury win, Tetreault — a Phi Beta Kappa, two-time All-American and 2008 Academic All-American player who graduated magna cum laude the following Sunday — took a three-hour proctored chemistry exam. For most players, Director of Athletics Jon Hind '80 says, "the academic work never really stopped."
Coach Kloidt found the demands of the week to be different only in degree from those of the regular season. "They always have to manage their time," she says, "and I think that they manage their time better when they are in season, to be quite honest." Study and academic commitment were also a discipline in which older teammates were seen as role models and led by example. McGowan, the senior, "was always up working on the second floor of Commons, so I would join her, just to hang out and study," Bray says. "A lot of times I was tired, but I thought, why not get some work done? Her being there was motivation for me."
'We learned what we were made of'
A win away from the College's first national team title in history and with a chance to avenge the season's only loss, Hamilton's women needed no further motivation. On this rain-drenched Sunday there would be no letup, no loss of focus, no last-second heartbreak. "Being the underdog," Briscoe says, "we learned what we were made of."
After an early exchange of goals with F&M in the championship game, with the score 2-2, the Continentals took control with six straight goals and won 13-6. Bray scored five goals on the way to the tournament's Outstanding Player Award. Another first-year player, Anne Graveley '11, added three goals; Briscoe had two goals and two assists. Seniors Nicole Tetreault and Jen McGowan ended their great careers with goals and joined Bray, Graveley and Kate Marek '09 on the All-Tournament team. Goalie Kate Fowler '10 recorded six saves, two ground balls and an intercepted pass in frustrating F&M's high-powered offense. "Seniors led me and told me what I needed to do," Fowler says, "but I was able to give them a different perspective from the goal."
A few hours later, the bus ride home through Clinton and back up the Hill was a wild one – but then, this team's bus rides usually are. Whether the players are sampling Usher's "Love in this Club" or Coach Kloidt's rendition of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," the song remains the same: "No Drama," as a team slogan phrases it. "Their strength is their sense of humor," Kloidt says. "They are a really funny group of kids. And that's how we've always handled pressure. They like to sing, they like to dance, they like to make fun of each other. They like to make fun of me. I like to make fun of them."
"Our team chemistry is what carried us through the season," Fowler says. "We were able to play hard and challenge each other at practice and then be really great friends afterward."
But there was something a little different about this last ride up the Hill after all. It was the people — not only the scores waiting at the Athletic Center, but those lining the streets of Clinton. "It was like a tidal wave to the front of the bus when they saw the police cars and the fire trucks," recalls Hind, who was traveling with the team – "like kids at Christmas."
"I don't even think I knew there were that many people in Clinton," Bray says. "They had their kids, they were holding up posters, everyone was applauding, screaming, jumping up and down."
Two months and countless hours of working, dreaming and learning after that soul-searching team meeting, the national champions came home to a hero's welcome. "My heart is so full of pride and admiration and gratitude to the team, to the coaches, to all of you, that words fail me," President Joan Hinde Stewart told them.
Hind, the director of athletics, knows a couple of things about both lacrosse and success. He built a winning Division I program from scratch at Butler University in Indianapolis during the 1990s and was named National Coach of the Year in 1998. But he is also "grounded in Division III philosophies" of academic and athletic balance, he noted on his return to Hamilton last summer. The Continentals' national crown is an abiding example of what can happen when that balance is struck – when chemistry, commitment and accountability converge.
"When somebody accomplishes something of this magnitude," Hind says, "everyone who's a part of this community wins."