The United States Coach of the Year: 2006
Barb Dwyer, Ladue Horton Watkins (Mo.)
At the western edge of St. Louis County, the streets are wide, the lawns manicured, the trees lush, and the fences perfectly straight, masking the mansions and golf courses which are a part of the towns of Ladue, Frontenac, Creve Coeur, and Olivette.
They are just four of 91 municipalities in the county, and are amongst the most affluent. Nearby private schools, especially those known nationally in field hockey circles such as Villa Duchesne and Cor Jesu, siphon off many of the best and brighest, despite the fact that one of the finest public schools in the country is located there.
That school is Ladue Horton Watkins (Mo.), which has been recognized for its academics and its graduation rate. Its sports teams, however, have historically held a much lower priority.
But in the years since Barb Dwyer has come to the Rams' field hockey program, the team and the school has come to embrace the sport passionately. Ladue finished with a record of 19-5 in 2006, and made the Midwest Athletic Association quarterfinal round while boasting the region's two leading scorers. For her efforts, Dwyer is the 2006 TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.
Dwyer is a product of a bygone era of field hockey, having graduated from Valparaiso University in 1978. The school's field hockey team was part of a forgotten tapestry of teams in the upper Midwest at the dawn of Title IX. The Crusaders played such teams as Indiana State, Purdue, and Northern Illinois, and its athletes would take part in all-star tournaments in such far-flung places as Minnesota and Oshkosh, Wis.
"I went there because they not only had field hockey, but they had a good engineering program," she says. "It wasn't until 1978 when we were talking about athletic scholarships."
After finishing college, she began umpiring field hockey in the St. Louis area, a vocation she has maintained while both teaching and coaching. She has even attained a collegiate rating and has traveled to umpire matches in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, amongst other places.
"My high school coach encouraged me to officiate, since we really needed officials," Dwyer says. "I could ref as much as I want, and once I started doing that, I enjoyed that aspect of the game just as much as playing."
She remained an umpire while raising three children, and coached basketball and other sports until 1994, when she came back to her alma mater, Brentwood (Mo.). She coached the Brentwood varsity program in 1997 and 1998, but a year later, came to the Ladue school district as a mathematics teacher and was asked to join then-head coach Carol Cole's staff as the freshman team coach.
Dwyer noticed that most of the students playing field hockey at Horton Watkins High had never picked up a stick before ninth grade, so she started an eighth-grade team in 2001. Little did she know how important that program would become.
"This senior class (as eighth-graders in 2002), I saw were really good, and I knew if I could get them to go out for field hockey, I felt like we could really develop a team," Dwyer says.
Dwyer and the upperclasswomen on the Ladue team have had to hurdle a number of significant obstacles even before taking the field. Female students have the choice of five sports in the autumn, including softball -- a sport with significant skill crossover for field hockey.
"Ladue is not big," she says. "To have that many sports to choose from, that's tough. But we had 55 girls come out for field hockey this year. We now have numbers to choose from."
In addition, there was a culture within the school which did not lend itself to athletic success. Part of that came from the drive to succeed in academics.
"You're not drawn to Ladue for athletics; you're looking for the academics, the variety of programs, and the Advanced Placement courses," Dwyer says. "Ladue students like to be involved in lots of different things. In order to fill out your resume, you should be involved in lots of different clubs and try lots of things. As a coach, I can't fight that. But what I try to share with the kids is that you need to pick something to be passionate about."
For Dwyer and her players, that something is field hockey.
"For some of the kids, they catch that passion," Dwyer says. "You need a few kids who say that they don't want to just dabble in field hockey, that they want to make it something they really want to do. You have to do the outside stuff, such as playing at Festival or on club teams. That wasn't happening before. We had players at college, but we weren't having players doing things outside the (varsity) season."
By the start of the 2006 season, it was anticipated that the Rams would step onto the field an improved team. But nobody had any idea how much improvement had actually occurred until the team rattled off six straight wins to start the season, including a clean sweep in pool play of the Gateway Invitational.
"We didn't have the strongest pool," Dwyer admits. "But it was a goal of ours to win it."
As the season unfolded, Ladue found itself in the unusual position of being a favorite. The team had the two highest scorers in the St. Louis area: junior Elizabeth Dwyer (26 goals) and senior Aubree Phillips (25). Elizabeth Dwyer is the coach's daughter and youngest of her three children. She's also had a stick in her hand, in recreational field hockey games, since about the age of seven."
"You talk about chemistry? They have played together since Elizabeth came to the varsity as a freshman," says Dwyer. "They clicked on the field this year, and they really could set each other up."
Ladue won a Midwest Athletic Association tournament game against Clayton (Mo.), but lost a quarterfinal match to eventual champion St. Louis Cor Jesu (Mo.).
"We could never get past that Saturday," Dwyer said of the quarterfinal round. "The younger kids now see that it's possible. They think they can do this, and they're not psyched out the moment they got on the field. They see that it'll take hard work outside of the regular season to make it possible."
Throughout the last few seasons, Dwyer had a little extra special motivation, a kind of motivation that goes beyond glib statements made in halftime speeches. That inspiration is a young woman named Isabel Hogan. The senior was born with Down Syndrome, but hasn't let it prevent her from athletic activity.
"There was mutual admiration and encouragement going on there," Dwyer says. "You'd hear 'You go, girl!' on the sidelines -- that was her favorite phrase. She'd be saying that to the kids, and then you'd hear, 'Go, Izzy!' They wanted her to succeed just as much as they wanted to. Both grew from their experience; they saw how hard Isabel had to work at it, but she had the enthusiasm and a smile on her face. She loved being around the kids, and they loved being around her."
Isabel Hogan had an older field hockey-playing sister named Darby, who is now at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
"Isabel idolized her sister," Dwyer says, "and her parents have had her doing stuff -- skating, downhill skiing -- since she was little. She likes to watch, and then work at it."
But field hockey, and its 3,000 or so separate and distinct nerve muscle skills, was different and difficult.
"I've worked with students with Down Syndrome before, and her eye-hand coordination is exemplary for someone with Down Syndrome," Dwyer says.
During the 2006 season, Hogan got an assist in a varsity game when she set up Phillips in the circle.
"And that assist was legit," Dwyer emphasizes. "Aubree was telling me that she had to score off the pass because it came from Isabel."
Dwyer's willingness to put Hogan on the pitch is a reflection of changes in the character and culture of the entire school. In 2006, Hogan was voted the school's Homecoming Queen.
"That senior class is a very compassionate group, and it's a really neat group of kids, and they look out for each other. They don't see her as someone with Down Syndrome, and that says a lot for the school," Dwyer says. "Not all classes are like that; I had an older son (graduate from Ladue), and I don't know whether that would have happened in his class."
And it might not have happened if Dwyer hadn't provided the supportive and encouraging environment and culture for Hogan, the team's eight seniors, and the rest of the team.
Heidi Bouchard, Pemberton (N.J.): Qualified her team to the NJSIAA Tournament for the first time since she was a player in 1996
Debbie Bross, Bethlehem Moravian Academy (Pa.): Team qualified for the PIAA tournament for the first time in 11 years and was a goal from first state tournament win since 1985
Kelli Gannon, San Diego Westview (Calif.): Retired national-team mainstay takes second-year team to San Diego small-school sectional final.
Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.): Powerful team won inaugural, and first-in-the-nation, Tournament of Champions, set school and state records for team goals scored, and won eighth straight state title
Cathy Keiser, Selinsgrove (Pa.): Shepherded her best-ever team through undefeated season and district play under great pressure of being ranked a preseason No. 1
Karen Klassner, Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.): Despite losing a pair of star midfielders to transfer, steered her team through regular-season and district play undefeated
Rebecca Kostelansky, Berkeley Heights Governor Livingston (N.J.): High school teammate of members of the U.S. lacrosse and field hockey teams, qualified her team to the New Jersey state tournament for the first time in 30 years
John Kugler, Delran (N.J.): Long-time coach suffered through many losing seasons before embarking on a 16-2-1 season and an appearance in the Group II Central championship game
Laura Nemer, Metuchen (N.J.): First-year coach took team with a 2-12 record and won the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament
Karen Nixon, Winston-Salem R.J. Reynolds (N.C.): Providence College grad propels team to become the first western Carolina team to win state tournament in new format, giving school first hockey crown since 1926
Pomie Radcliff, La Plata (Md.): A scant 4 1/2 years after a "supercell" tornado almost destroyed the town's center, she brought team to the state semifinals after a decade-long absence
Pattie Sullivan, Stafford Mountain View (Va.): Second-year team was an overtime goal away from the state final
Julie Swain, Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.): Not only adopted team's winning tradition in taking Class AAA final, also went as far as taking partial custody of one of her players
Rick Tubman, Stevensville Kent Island (Md.): Led team to first sectional championship in school history