Glory Days Magazine Staff Writer Dave O’Sullivan recently spoke with second-year Ocean City field hockey coach Kelsey Mitchell, who has led the Red Raiders to 24 wins in her first 35 games since taking over for Cory Terry. Mitchell has an impressive field hockey background; at Eastern Regional High School she was named state player of the year twice and won four state championships, and at Iowa University she was a starter throughout much of her career and twice was named Academic All-Big Ten. She was a two-time All-American in high school and when she graduated in 2010 she held the state record for career goals with 171.
Sully: What was that experience like, playing college field hockey at that level?
Mitchell: It was great. The Big Ten is, I think, the best conference in the country, in any sport and in any academic area. It was awesome to be on a campus of that caliber and be challenged athletically and academically.
Sully: What was it about Eastern, with legendary coach Danyle Heilig, that prepared you to be a head coach? What was that like playing for her?
Mitchell: She gets more out of people than they think is possible. I played for her for four years and also coached with her my first year out of college, so I learned a ton playing for her and also coaching with her. I saw things from the coaching perspective that never really hit me before as a player, and just being able to utilize her guidance and try to do things with my own twist. She’s definitely a role model.
Sully: When the Ocean City job came open, did you feel like you had a good shot at it? That’s been such a great program that’s only had a couple of coaches for the past 25 or 30 years.
Mitchell: Coach Heilig is actually the one who encouraged me to go for it. Like I said, I had coached with her for a year out of college, and I loved it. She said I had the ability to be a great coach, and that’s a great program that I could put my own mark on. So, I went for it, and as I went through the process I was just trying to be myself and show insight into what I believe in, what I’m capable of, and ultimately the goals I had for the program and for me as a teacher.
Sully: Were you nervous at all about taking over one of the legendary programs in South Jersey as a first-time head coach?
Mitchell: Yes and no. Coming from Eastern, I’m used to pressure and I’m used to expectations, and I know what people want. So I felt like that wouldn’t be foreign to me, but by the same token I had never been a head coach before so I needed someone to have faith in me and give me a shot.
Sully: What’s been the biggest challenge? Last year, Ocean City’s not used to having a 14-8 record, but, obviously there’s a little bit of a learning curve for you as a first-time head coach.
Mitchell: With the squad I inherited, we only had Maddie (Kahn) returning in the goal cage and Shannon O’Reilly returning in the field. Other than that, I had all fresh faces who had played very minimal varsity time. That’s not to say they weren’t talented and skilled kids, but they were following behind a class of stud seniors. Yeah, we finished 14-8, but if you go line by line down our schedule, we were in tight games with West Essex, Oak Knoll, Bishop Eustace — we played a tough schedule and I view that as a learning experience. You can’t be the best if you don’t beat the best. So, we want to compete with those types of teams, just like we’re doing this year. We played West Essex (a 2-1 loss) a couple Saturdays ago, and we have our non-conference schedule coming up (games against Haddonfield and Oak Knoll) and we have tough teams in our conference. So, daily, we like to challenge ourselves.
Sully: What do you think has been the response of the kids to you coming in as their head coach?
Mitchell: I think they have bought in to what I embody. I don’t think you can get better if you’re not challenging yourself every day, so I like to think that our practices are difficult but that the kids enjoy them because they see the benefits they’re getting. They’re reaping the benefits of their hard work. Overall, I try to have a very familial-type of culture within our team because I think that gives you an edge. Yeah, maybe a team is more skilled than us, but they’re not going to fight for one another, where as I know my team will fight for one another in addition to being skilled and working hard.
Sully: What’s been the biggest surprise so far? Has anything not going according to plan or have you been surprised with anything in general about the program?
Mitchell: I wouldn’t say surprised, but it’s comforting to have such community support. We have a great booster club and great parental involvement. We have fans who come to the games because they’ve been coming to the games for 20 years. I’m not surprised by that because it’s the same type of culture at Eastern, but it’s comforting to know the community that we have does whatever is in the best interest of our girls.
Sully: Is it tough to take over for a coach who has won state championships, and do you feel like, man, if we don’t win a state title within three or four years the fan base is going to be on my case?
Mitchell: I hope not, because everyone is different and everyone has a different style and goes about their business differently. I think it would be difficult to compare one coach to another. Cory played for Trish (LeFever) so I’m sure they had similarities, where as I didn’t play for either one of them, but in conversation I’ve found we’re similar in some aspects. I would hope that each one of us is credited and valued for what we contribute to this program.
Sully: What’s been the best part about it? This is a coveted coaching job and I’m sure it was a tough interview process to get this job. What’s been the most rewarding part about it?
Mitchell: Just being able to do things the way I see them. I’ve played for a lot of different coaches, for coach Heilig at Eastern, I played at Iowa, I’ve played for multiple clubs and taking a little something from each coach I’ve played for and putting my own twist on it, and seeing how it works or how it fails and how I need to adjust is fun. I love seeing the girls every day and they are learning, they’re trying and they are doing new things. That’s what I love the most, I love my team. Every kid on it is awesome and brings something different.
Sully: What kind of things do you do to relieve the stress of teaching all day and coaching all afternoon?
Mitchell: I love being outside, so going to practice is a highlight of my day. I love interacting with kids because they have such unique perspectives and they are very insightful, so being able to hear 150 different perspectives within a day is really cool.
Sully: What kind of interests do you have besides teaching and coaching?
Mitchell: Like I said, I like to be outside, I like to read, I like to be active and work out. We have a puppy, so he’s taking up some time and he’s always fun to play with and go for walks with.
Sully: At what point do think you won’t still be considered a shoobie?
Mitchell: I don’t know where the cutoff is. I love it around here though. I drive to work every morning over the 9th Street bridge and see the sun rise over the water and houses and see the ferris wheel. You can’t beat that. I’m 26 and I have my dream job.
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays