by Shelly Morris
I am an NCAA Division I head coach who is lucky enough to coach at my alma mater. It is an opportunity that is only afforded to a few. A true full circle of life, that my naïve 18-year-old self would have never seen coming.
I grew up in western Massachusetts, playing street hockey with my brother, who to this day still takes full credit for my field hockey career. In 9th grade, I was introduced to the sport of field hockey in phys-ed class. Before I knew it, I had given up on soccer and was eager to play the sport I loved in college. There was not a lot of field hockey played in western Mass., but Springfield College provided an oasis for the sport. My friends and I would go to their night games – “under the lights” – to see the best field hockey played in our area. It was at one of their games that I was given a game program with a fall schedule on the back. Little did I realize, that game program would serve as my map for my college selection. Without internet back then, I whittled down the list by researching the schools that had a major I wanted and those that played on Astroturf, which was rare back then. After all these years, I still have that program.
Academics, team success, and the facility brought me to Northeastern University. I had no idea they had just finished competing in the NCAA field hockey Final Four, but I was given an opportunity to try out for the team and my name was on the list after the three-day tryout. I was about to embark on the challenges and opportunities Northeastern University was going to give me and some of the best four years of my life. As a walk-on, I worked hard during preseason, oblivious to the hierarchy, and made the travel team to fly to Chicago opening weekend to play Northwestern and Iowa. It was my first time on a plane.
I played against Northwestern, and started in the second game vs. Iowa. To say my first few weeks at Northeastern impacted my life is an understatement – it was a whirlwind. Time seemed to fly over the next four years. We made four trips to the NCAA tournament, and got to the Elite Eight three times. We appeared in four conference title games and won two championships. I was so fortunate to be a part of this history. In my senior year, I did my last co-op at Brookline High School, in the assistant athletic director position. They created a permanent position for me when I graduated which allowed me to stay with the field hockey program, as the second assistant coach. Juggling a full time job, then racing to be at practice was a lot, but it afforded me the chance to be with the team during their 1995 Final Four appearance. That’s when I knew, I really just wanted a job as a full-time coach.
Northeastern Field Hockey’s success continued after I left to pursue my coaching career, making another trip to the Final Four in 1996, winning several conference titles and appearing in several NCAA Tournaments. I followed from afar and even played against my alma mater twice when I was a head coach at Ohio University. But returning to coach at Northeastern was always in the back of my mind, despite having success coaching with my other programs. In 2015, I was able to do just that. Knowing [former head coach] Cheryl [Murtagh] wasn’t far from retirement, the aspiration was there to eventually take over and continue the success she had built for the last 30 years. I came back to work side-by-side with Cheryl as the associate head coach for three seasons, getting reacquainted with Northeastern and all its changes.
My days of walking across Huntington Ave, navigating the tunnels, and spending time on co-op, helps me relate to the student-athlete’s experience here. Knowing what it takes to be successful and having been at the highest level of collegiate field hockey during my playing and coaching career also helps me speak to the success we are striving for. This program and my experience as a student at Northeastern has shaped who I am as a person and guided me through my career. I have built my philosophy as a coach around it. I was fortunate enough to have an incredible experience as a student-athlete and I want my student-athletes to look back on their time here with the same admiration, feelings of accomplishment and positive memories that will stay with them forever. As cliché as it is, the wins bring you to those memorable moments, but it’s the friends you make, the perseverance, and feelings of triumph that truly shape you. This is the environment I strive to create for them each day. The determination and exhilaration of playing the sport you love with some of your best friends, on a daily basis.
Being in this position for just over a year now, I know there is still work to be done. My life has come full circle and once again I am faced with challenges and opportunities at Northeastern. Our athletic programs have never been more successful, the university has become one of top schools in the country and the CAA is getting stronger each year. I am excited at what the future holds. We are having a great spring season, there have been some exciting changes within the athletic department, we are adding some very talented recruits and we are even heading to Argentina this summer, one of the best field hockey countries in the world. It should be an incredible bonding and playing experience for the entire program. As enthusiastic as I am for the future, I can’t help but look back and be grateful at how all of this started with a simple game program in Springfield, Massachusetts.