The United States Coach of the Year: 2004
Monica Dennis, Grosse Pointe (Mich.) South
If things were a little different, Monica Dennis might have been traveling across America in the fall of 2004, regaling in Olympic glory as a member of the U.S. women's soccer team, playing alongside several women's sports legends on the Fan Appreciation Tour.
As it happened, Dennis wasn't playing soccer, she was coaching field hockey -- specifically, bringing Grosse Pointe South (Mich.) to its first state championship in its first year of being a fully-funded varsity program.
Evidently, legendary North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance had seen something in Dennis while he was recruiting her back in the early 1990s; how else do you account for her extraordinary transition from a soccer-playing phenom to field hockey-coaching phenom, culminating in her being named TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year in 2004?
Obviously, Dennis is no ordinary coach, choosing to break the authoritarian mold of coaching to let her players use their intelligence to make decisions during the game. She does not trace her success to a Positive Coaching Alliance meeting, or to the upcoming Horst Wein book "Developing Game Intelligence." But she has she hit upon the perfect synthesis of the two.
"I just sit on the bench, and I'm pretty passive: I try to coach in a way that they can start coaching themselves," Dennis says. "I do all my work before the game; I try and look at each girl, push and pull using their strengths, and turn it into what will work the best."
Dennis had a pretty good coaching history previously, having coached her alma mater, Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett School (Mich.) to the 1996 state championship in her only season at the helm; she was just out of Sweet Briar College.
She then started a family, which has since grown to three children. It became a metaphor for her being able to juggle responsibilities. For in 2004, she not only won a state championship with about half of the athletes she expected to have after the previous year, she also served as the umpire assigner for the entire state.
But let's start at the beginning; at least, the second beginning. After being out of varsity coaching after winning the state title with Liggett, she inherited something quite different in 2002. The program, known then as Grosse Pointe Field Hockey, was at the time not recognizable as a varsity team. It was a cooperative club team where students from Grosse Pointe North High School and Grosse Pointe South High School paid to play on whatever fields were available at schools in the town located about 10 miles east-northeast of Detroit.
"We were at the bottom of the totem pole, so we got whatever was left over, and there was no concern as to whether it was a suitable field or not. My first year at Fisher Middle School, we called our field 'The Sahara,' because by the end of the season, there would be no grass. It was flat and fast, but by the end of the season, we could count about 10 blades of grass, and schools wouldn't be used to it," Dennis says. "Last year, we were at Pierce Middle School which was kind of scary because when you hit a ball, it would hit a clump of grass or whatever and the ball go flying. And we were also pinched in on each side of the field by two manhole covers; we had to put like 10 cones in the area so there would be no issue, because God forbid anything would happen there."
No bus service was afforded the players; they carpooled to and from games as far away as East Grand Rapids, a three-hour drive across the Lower Peninsula. And team members didn't even earn varsity letters at the end of the season for their efforts.
"I wasn't going to take the job unless these girls received varsity letters," Dennis says. "I had both athletic directors agree; and that was the first year they started receiving them."
Grosse Pointe's club team was obligated to play a full schedule in the Michigan Field Hockey Association against well-funded private- and public-school varsity programs. It was not going to be easy, especially given the powerhouse Ann Arbor high schools, which dominated play in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But a funny thing happened in her first couple of years as club coach. Girls from both Grosse Pointe North and Grosse Pointe South started coming out for the team in droves. Players from the soccer, ice hockey, and basketball teams signed up, including some athletes who played in programs which tracked directly towards national-team and Olympic development.
"The numbers were so high," Dennis says. "Why were they all wanting to come out and play field hockey? I had tennis players, basketball, and all these great athletes. Some of them didn't like their coach. Others thought that, by playing on a team with higher numbers, you had a better opportunity to go to college."
And she was not about to shut off the field hockey avenue to those looking to find a place on the Grosse Pointe club team.
"We opened our arms, and said 'no' to nobody," Dennis says. "And if you didn't fulfill the year, it was on your own doing."
The program grew to a point where close to 100 athletes started showing up for Grosse Pointe club practices, and an idea was hatched.
"We came up with the idea of having a mixed varsity, but a separate JV for North and a separate JV for South," Dennis says of the 2003 season.
All this time, Grosse Pointe was improving, getting into the state Final Four in 2002, only to fall short of that level in 2003. But by 2004, the split between Grosse Pointe North and Grosse Pointe South field hockey teams was set to become reality.
The pool of roughly 112 athletes was divided; 48 to North, 64 to South. And, as it turns out, Dennis' 64 athletes had something in common: no one in the bunch had played in the goal cage.
"We were going to do it like the opening year in the middle school season: everyone takes a turn," she said. "They said, 'Are you kidding, coach?' Every day, we made our sales pitch to get a goaltender, even to girls who we know didn't want to play, but we knew that if we didn't get a goalie, they would have to play."
Eventually, Dennis got a sophomore to start for her in the goal cage, whereupon the new Grosse Pointe South varsity team embarked on its 2004 season -- played on a brand new artificial grass pitch shared by the football and soccer teams.
"They shifted our games to a 7 o'clock varsity start," Dennis says. "But we had very limited practice time there. We were guaranteed the Pierce field, but by then, they put in a sprinkling system, and the difference was like if someone got a hair transplant."
The team got off to a tremendous start, culminating with a 3-1 win over defending state champion Ann Arbor Pioneer (Mich.), in which the team demonstrated its potential.
"The mental game was something we really needed to work on; you said the word 'Pioneer,' you might as well have not played the game; it was lost," Dennis says. "That final was 3-1, and, really, it was a 1-0 game; there were three goals scored in the last 4:26. There was cheering, but then there was silence, because they were in awe of themselves because they had just beaten Pioneer."
But a subsequent loss to Ann Arbor Huron eventually became a rallying point for Grosse Pointe South, as well as the motivational fulcrum for the state final, in which the Blue Devils beat Huron 1-0 on an Ali Murawski goal.
"The feat, in and of itself, was great," Dennis says. "But afterwards, there was a silent reflection of how far they had come. And not just in the skill, but the development, and bonding, and trust. It was so great to see."
Some of the players on the 15-1-2 Blue Devils team had played with the hockey club for several years, and others had only known GPS varsity life starting in 2004. But regardless, their collective inexperience before finding the game was enormous.
"The thing is, I had exactly three girls on the team who had touched a field hockey stick before coming to the high school," Dennis says. "Bringing out the best in others: what better thing can you do for your players? And that goes beyond field hockey."
Dennis credits Muriel Brock, her former coach at University Liggett School, along with Hall-of-Fame coach Jennifer Crispen of Sweet Briar College in Virginia and Michigan State assistant Rolf van de Kerkhof in her development.
"I take any and every opportunity to get better," Dennis says. "And why not? You can always improve."
Robin Chandler, Lakeville Hotchkiss School (Conn.): Two straight WNEPSAA titles show she is doing something right
Naoma Cordi, Ewing (N.J.): After taking over in the second week of the season, steered Blue Devils to first state tournament appearance in more than 20 years
Heather Doyle, Maine-Endwell (N.Y.): Won state title with goal in double-overtime
Gina DiMaio, Hackettstown (N.J.): In program's third year after sport was dropped in the 80s, won its first Hunterdon-Warren Tournament championship
Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.): In a run of six state titles and 138 matches without a loss, this might have been her best overall team
Ken Lynes, Turners Falls Franklin County Technical School (Mass.): Brought team to state tournament one year after team was shut down for the 2003 season
Ida Malloy, The Pennington (N.J.) School: Team earned 11 wins, a high for this underwomanned program
Barb Marois, York (Maine): Almost earned team's first-ever state championship
Lil Shelton, Severna Park (Md.): Might have been the most talented Falcons team in her nearly 40 years of coaching
Debbie Windett, Camden Caesar Rodney (Del.): Blessed with the fastest team in her 25 years of coaching, won state title
Colleen Wood, Wilkes-Barre Coughlin (Pa.): Team made first appearance in state tournament in more than two decades and came within one game of winning state championship