The United States Coach of the Year: 2007
Wendy Reichenbach, Palmyra (Pa.)
Wendy Reichenbach is a product of a field hockey family. Her mother attended Philadelphia Friends Central (Pa.) and encountered Constance Applebee, the mother of the sport in the United States, at a Holly Shores field hockey camp. Reichenbach's mother and aunt played at the University of Pennsylvania in the days when college teams would compete against adult women from local athletic clubs or even touring teams from other countries.
But despite playing under legendary coaches Eleanor Snell and Adele Boyd at Ursinus College, Reichenbach didn't get involved in coaching until her children started getting involved in athletics.
Reichenbach, however, has had a tremendous impact as head coach of the Palmyra varsity field hockey team over the past eight seasons. Her Cougars won a state championship in 2005, and she has had almost 200 victories.
The seeds for Reichenbach's success had been planted a lot earlier, however, Her predecessor, Kathy Shenk, had started recreational field hockey programs for very young players called Weed Whackers. Shenk also figured in the development of programs in Palmyra's middle and junior high schools.
Shenk welcomed parents of players onto the coaching staff, which is something unusual in scholastic sport, given the inherent possibility of conflict. Nevertheless, Shenk took Reichenbach on the staff in the mid-1990s while her daughters were on varsity.
Reichenbach repaid the favor when she welcomed former professional ice hockey player Ross Fitzpatrick onto her staff while his daughter Kelly was in the midst of an astounding 66-goal season in 2005, helping the Cougars to the state title that season.
"He brought the flavor of a professional athlete to our staff," Reichenbach says. "And he also brought the ethic of 'Gotta have fun' to the team. If you're working all the time, you're not going to be as successful."
And with Fitpatrick's graduation after that championship season, Reichenbach's coaching staff evolved. Her inner circle heading into 2007 included long-time assistant Kent Hershmann, who took care of strategy and details, and former University of Virginia standout Julianne Bojanic, who brought technical skills and role-modeling to the team.
Role-modeling is not lost on Reichenbach, who counts two of the state's legends amongst her mentors: Karen Klassner of Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) and Linda Kreiser of Hummelstown Lower Dauphin (Pa.).
"They 'get it,' as far as I'm concerned," Reichenbach says. "While winning is a very important part of coaching, it's one of only a large number of factors. They teach the life lessons of sport: keep it as positive as you can."
She counts coaches Lou Holtz, Phil Jackson, and Dean Smith as authors of some of her most influential reading materials. But there was no chapter in her personal coaching manual to deal with the aftermath of October 16, 2007. On that day, one of the sophomore members of the Palmyra field hockey team, Cassie Altfather, died of a gunshot wound.
The afternoon of October 21, 2007 was unnaturally warm in the town of Palmyra, a hamlet of about 8,000 located just east of Hershey on Route 422.
Just south of the main intersection in town, in a parking lot near the high school, a gathering took place. Well-dressed adults ringed an ever-growing group of teenage girls.
Each of the teenagers was wearing a white T-shirt with a black numeral "1" on the back. One after another, they came, and like positively-charged ions, clung together with hugs while the group of well-dressed adults kept their distance. The occasional anguished sob scythed through the warm silence.
Normally, when it comes to today's teenager, adult supervision is often akin to herding cats. But the only adult in the midst of this circle got a group of girls, clad as one in white T-shirts, moving in the right direction after a few minutes.
The entire assembly walked in the sunshine to do something that was probably the most difficult thing they ever had to do: say good-bye to a teammate.
For a small, tight-knit community like Palmyra, Altfather's death was big news.
The line for her viewing stretched for three blocks. An assembly in the middle-school auditorium drew a crowd which by some accounts could have equaled Palmyra's population. Her name was, in the days following her death, one of the 70 most-searched terms on the World Wide Web.
Reichenbach was thus saddled with one of the most difficult tasks imaginable: holding the team together as the Cougars embarked on postseason tournament play.
Altfather's death had come at a time when the Cougars might have been doubting themselves. They had not played well in the week coming into the semifinals of the Mid-Penn Conference Tournament, a last chance to improve seeding for the District 3-AA Tournament.
The decision was made to forego play in the conference tournament; the players needed time to grieve.
"Our kids were very much a family," Reichenbach says. "It was much easier for them to express themselves, share their feelings, their fears, their frustrations, when they were together. Thing is, you can cry for only so long. They needed to do something physical, so they wanted to get back out on the field together."
Palmyra didn't have to worry much about the seeding of District 3-AA after its forfeit: even without the extra games, the Cougars received a 2 seed.
However, in the first round of District 3-AA play, the Cougars' season almost ended at the hands of 18th-seeded Lancaster (Pa.) Christian. Palmyra needed overtime to win that match, but responded to thump 26th-seeded Boiling Springs (Pa.) 5-0 in the second round.
The score and the occasion were significant. First, Altfather's jersey number was 5. Second, as six teams from District 3 qualify for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association's Class AA Tournament, the quarterfinal round serves as the District's "tipping point;" win the game and you're automatically qualified for the state tournament, no matter what you do in the next two matches.
The semifinal and classification games against Northern York and Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite may have been seen as somewhat meaningless after getting into the state tournament, but the Cougars wanted to win these games, which they did.
However, as District 3-AA champions, they were placed in possibly the toughest draw imaginable: the upper half of the PIAA Class AA bracket. The road to the state finals included Center Valley Southern Lehigh (Pa.), Selinsgrove (Pa.) and Dallas (Pa.). All three of these teams had astounding talent on their rosters, and had amassed frightening amounts of goals.
But, one by one, Palmyra vanquished each opponent.
"This is why you pack your schedule with the most challenging teams possible," Reichenbach said. "All you have to do is believe you can beat your opponent, and half of the battle is won right there."
There was one final battle in the state final match, though: a Saturday morning tilt with Mifflinburg (Pa.).
The stands and sidelines of J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown were a kaleidoscope of motivational T-shirts with themes coined over the past dozen seasons under Kathy Shenk and Wendy Reichenbach.
There were the SCIJ shirts, proclaiming Strength, Courage, Intensity, and Joy. There were the "Pass, Shoot, Score" shirts from the 2005 state championship season. There were some of the Every Moment Counts shirts from this year.
But the team members wore a different shirt during pre-game warmups. These were shirts were fluorescent lime-green: it was Cassie Altfather's favorite color. The writing on the shirt proclaimed RIP, her dates of birth and passing, and her name. The Cougars' togetherness was literally written on their sleeve.
The whistle sounded, and the game began. Mifflinburg took advantage of a fortunate deflection early to take a 1-0 lead into the interval, but Palmyra team leader Jen Sciulli's seeing-eye backhander leveled the match heading into the final minutes.
In overtime, Mifflinburg took advantage of a sliver of open space in the midfield and bull-rushed the Palmyra circle. The ball went in.
To their credit, the Palmyra players didn't hang their heads as they left the field with the runner-up trophy. Very few eyes were wet amongst the team members.
As Coach Reichenbach says, "You can cry for only so long."
The work goes on for Reichenbach, months before the next group of Cougars convenes to go for an eighth straight divisional championship in the fall.
Her Mid-State offseason club has qualifiers throughout the winter to try to get three teams into the National Indoor Tournament.
But after this season, the work to be done -- on the part of the coaches, players, and even the new alumnae -- has a different meaning.
"Life has its high points as well as its low points," Reichenbach says. "Find out what gives you joy, and commit yourself to it. Know that the interpersonal connections are what helps you share the joy, and to get over the disappointments."
Ann Beckley, Mifflinburg (Pa.): Paid her dues for 13 seasons as Cats’ assistant coach before taking over as head coach, and won state title with an unheralded group of overachievers
Ngiao Carlisle, Charlotte (N.C.) Latin: Became a finalist in the NCISAA tournment, and made an impression in out-of-state games along the way
Robin Chandler, Lakeville Hotchkiss School (Conn.): Bearcats had an astounding season in winning sixth straight NEPSAC title and yielding just one goal all season
Kim Elmore, Carlsbad La Costa Canyon (Calif.): Helped Mavericks dominated San Diego-area competition the last three seasons
Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.): Won ninth straight state title to tie all-time record and extended her own record of consecutive state titles won as a head coach
Shawn Hindy, Lehighton (Pa.): Has turned his players into a skilled, fit, and powerful team which will contend for years to come
Lynn Hoeppner, Shelburn Falls Mohawk Trail Regional (Mass.): Won first league championship since 1988
Liz Lewis, Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.): Despite some significant graduation losses, repeated as undefeated state champions
Kerry Mariello, Scarborough (Maine): Red Storm advanced to Class A semifinals for the first time in school history
John O’Neill, Warren Quaboag Regional (Mass.): Team-oriented approach brought team a state championship, yielding but three goals all season
Renee Phelps, Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.): Overcame all of the expectations and created her own niche in Renegade history
Cheryl Poore, Harwich (Mass.): Legendary coach might have had her best-ever chance to win a state championship
Becky Preston, Fairfax W.T. Woodson (Va.): Came from an unheralded JV program in Kentucky to bring Cavaliers to the state tournament
Mae Shoemaker, Acton-Boxboro (Mass.): Cancer survivor rallied herself and the team to a state championship