The United States Coach of the Year: 2008
Elizabeth Mitchell, Pewaukee Trinity Academy (Wisc.)
In late October 2008, on a cold patch of grass in Brookfield, Wisc., two groups of teenagers, each wearing blue and gold, faced each other for the Wisconsin state championship.
One team was familiar with the surroundings; the University School of Milwaukee (Wisc.) was the dominant team in the state for the beginning half of this decade, winning not only the state title five times between 2000 and 2005, but winning respect for their play in out-of-state tournaments such as the Gateway Invitational.
The Wildcats took to the field in new uniforms, with dazzling fabric and solid colors like many of their counteparts in the sport nationwide.
But as the University School players looked at their opponents, Pewaukee Trinity Academy (Wisc.), they saw something familiar: the plaid kilts that they had worn a year ago. They also saw, on that varsity team, more than a third of the school's upper-school students. And they also saw, on the sidelines, a driven and fearless coach who had readied the team for its first season of varsity play in Wisconsin.
They saw Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, the TopOfTheCircle.com 2008 United States Coach of the Year.
To understand the novelty of Trinity Academy's 2008 state championship season, you have to understand the context in which it was played. The state of Wisconsin, despite a proud AIAW collegiate history, currently has only eight scholastic varsity field hockey schools. There used to be only three or four, but a number of small private schools, such as Trinity, have adopted the sport in recent years.
You also need to understand the school, located in a small town 10 miles west of Milwaukee. Trinity, founded in 1997, has only about 135 students from grades 5-12. The field hockey program, however, didn't start until 2003. That's when Mitchell, a graduate of Brookfield (Wisc.) Academy, came back to Wisconsin to teach after working for five years as a translator at The Vatican while receiving her PhD in traditional communications.
Mitchell was able to procure some hand-me-down kilts and some used goalkeeping equipment from her alma mater that first preseason. During tryouts, she turned away nobody -- short, tall, seniors, even middle-schoolers. A middle-schooler scored the program's first goal in the fall of 2003, and that one player remained in the program through her senior season, which just happened to be the fall of 2008.
"That first year," Mitchell says, "we spray-painted, by hand, a hockey field on our property. There were gopher holes on our field, and the ball would sometimes disappear into the gopher holes."
The team scheduled games when they could, often at the convenience of other teams. One time, the Sentinels showed up during another team's practice ("We were penciled in on their schedule," Mitchell recalls), and the opposition spontaneously formed a team with 11 field players and no goalkeeper. "And they still slaughtered us," Mitchell says.
By the third year of the program's existence, a new hockey pitch was laid out on a neighboring farmer's cornfield. An agreement was made that he wouldn't use that acre for planting, and it turned into the Sentinels' home ground.
In 2007, Trinity Academy won the statewide postseason field hockey tournament for JV teams. The logical move was to advance the program into varsity play for 2008. Mitchell didn't know how well her team would do against varsity competition, although she did have a plan for the season.
"We had a number of teams which we knew we could compete against, and it was our goal to get a win or a tie against them," Mitchell said. "There were other games, like Arrowhead and USM, where it was our goal to learn from them."
By the 10th game of the season, however, Mitchell had a revelation, one which we shared with her sister, the team's assistant coach. They both sat the varsity down after a practice.
"We told the girls that if we changed our strategy, and if we believed we could, we could win a state championship," she said. "We weren't getting slaughtered by the likes of Arrowhead and USM."
The players looked at each other. "You're crazy," they thought.
After all, Trinity languished at about the .500 mark all season, and hadn't beaten any of the elite teams in the state. While the effort in the regular season was certainly gallant, the Sentinels couldn't possibly aspire to a championship -- or could they?
Seeded fifth, playing in its first varsity postseason game ever, Trinity Academy met Mitchell's alma mater, Brookfield Academy. Playing fearlessly, and having worked heavily on conditioning, the Sentinels kept Brookfield off the scoreboard, sending the game into overtime. It was in the extra period when Marina Shumaker scored.
"That was such a major confidence-booster," Mitchell said. "When they won that game, that started everything."
The win set up a match against Hartland Arrowhead (Wisc.), the lone public school in the state that has the sport. Arrowhead has 2,300 students and fields four field hockey teams -- a varsity, second varsity, junior varsity, and a second JV team. Compare that with Trinity Academy, which has a total of 22 female students in the upper school, of which 17 played on Mitchell's varsity team this past season.
Although Arrowhead had beaten Trinity twice in the 2008 season, the Sentinels held the opposition scoreless through regulation and two overtime periods, Trinity won on penalty strokes -- a true David-and-Goliath story if there ever was one.
"We took that game so seriously," Mitchell said, "and Arrowhead probably thought that it was going to be a walkover."
The next game was the final against University, a team which had also defeated the Sentinels twice in 2008. But Trinity held USM to a 1-1 draw through 80 minutes of regulation and overtime. Eventually, Trinity won a penalty stroke shootout, 6-5, with the result not being determined until after the 11th pair of strokers for both teams.
The hand-me-down kilts still had some good hockey in them.
The championship spoke to the togetherness and belief of of the 17 Trinity players and the members of the coaching staff. But an act of compassion long after the season ended spoke to the true character of the team.
"University School had a player diagnosed with intestinal cancer," Mitchell says. "Our players had a team meeting, and our captains sent her a Christmas card with written prayers inside of it from members of the team."
This was a gesture towards a player on a team had focused their energies on defeating just two months earlier.
"That," Mitchell says, "puts everything in perspective. You really have to remember that it's just a game."
Weeks after the end of the season, the players go about their school business standing a bit taller -- the tiny school with 22 female upper-school students, playing on a borrowed cornfield wearing hand-me-down kilts, stands as champions.
"I've told the kids that they are legends now," Mitchell says. "The championship has already done a great deal for their confidence, and shows what you can achieve when you set your goals."
Joan Bannon, Hopkinton (Mass.): In just her third season at the helm, brought the Hillers their first state championship in field hockey
Jen Campbell, Merion (Pa.) Mercy: Took a team which had finished in third place in its own league and brought it to within a goal of the PIAA Class AA state championship
Robin Chandler, Lakeville Hotchkiss School (Conn.): This team, featuring a number of players whose best sport isn't field hockey, have won seven straight NEPSAC championships
Nancy Cole and Shannon Watson, East Setauket Ward Melville (N.Y.): Cole, a legendary head coach with a rival school, took on a co-head coach on faith, and together won a state championship
Paula Doughty, Skowhegan (Maine): Won eighth straight state championship with a very small senior class, defying all expectations except their own
Nancy Gross, Wall (N.J.): Shepherded Crimson Knights to first Shore Conference Tournament final since 1991, then through an extraordinary series of postseason matches to win the Group III title and to reach the final of the New Jersey Tournament of Champions
Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.): Won 10th straight state title to break all-time record and extended her own record of consecutive state titles won as a head coach
Liz Lewis, Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.): Fine team went through an awesome out-of-league schedule undefeated, beating teams from five other states including three sitting or future state champions
Andrea Montalvo, West Babylon (N.Y.): Made first state tournament appearance since 1987 a memorable one with a first-round victory
Marcene Murphy, Englewood St. Mary's Academy (Colo.): Beat No. 1 seed in semifinals and won state championship in extra time
Jeannine O'Connor, Sewell Washington Township (N.J.): Nurtured skilled team past its own expectations and showed themselves a worthy opponent for Eastern for years to come