BY LEXI LOBDELL ’20
When Andy Whitcomb took over the Mount Holyoke field hockey team in 1998, the team was last-place in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC), having won only five games in five years. Fast forward to 2017, Whitcomb’s team has an impressive resume featuring multiple NEWMAC championships and NCAA tournament appearances.
Convincing Whitcomb to join the Lyon’s athletic department wasn’t easy. Whitcomb remembers, “I took the job after a lot of inflection from Laurie Priest, who was the former athletic director. She really followed me around for a while, literally, because I was really nervous to take the job. [Mount Holyoke] was the basement team in New England.”
Once she arrived at Mount Holyoke, Whitcomb got right to work. “I don’t want to sound too harsh, but I got rid of the deadwood on our team: kids who just treated this like an intramural program. If we are going to keep score, we might as well try to win,” said Whitcomb.
Working with a team that had grown comfortable being at the botton of their conference, Whitcomb set out to change their mindset. The field hockey team played competitively every game, with the aim of getting to NEWMAC.
Next she tackled recruitment. Prior to Whitcomb, the Lyon’s coach did not recruit; the team would simply take whoever showed up. Instead, Whitcomb focused on getting recruits on campus, where “they could see the magic” of Mount Holyoke.
Her initial objective, in 1998, was to improve defense performance. She still remembers the pivotal moment for the program, “I can go back 20 years and remember it so well — we were playing Trinity College and they had beaten us for years 8-0, 7-0, 9-0.” Trinity was beating the Lyons 7-0 when their coach put the substitute in the game. Whitcomb recalls the Trinity coach putting in the substitute goalie “in front of [Whitcomb’s] whole team...and [the Trinity coach] saying ‘don’t you dare give up this shut out.’”
Thinking that was very disrespectful to her team, Whitcomb called a timeout and told them, “I don’t care what else we do this season — you’re going to score a goal before this game ends!” When the Lyon’s scored, Whitcomb said, “You would have thought we won the Super Bowl! That game was where I saw the tide change. By the next year we were in our conference playoffs and the year after that we were in NCAAs [National Collegiate Athletic Association].”
Since that turning point, Whitcomb’s key to maintaining the Lyon’s success is the team’s culture. “Mount Holyoke field hockey is known for having really hard working kids who leave it on the field.” Her player’s work ethics are at the core of the cultural change she facilitated. “Good kids breed other goods kids,”said Whitcomb.
Whitcomb was quick to add that relationships are a huge part of maintaining the team’s winning culture. “I’m tough, I’m demanding — I have a certain expectation level. But I think if it’s 2:30 a.m. and one of my players is in a bad situation, I’d be one of the first people they call. That’s the chemistry that you have within a team. And that gets passed down every single year.”
In Whitcomb’s time at Mount Holyoke, she’s adapted to many changes, such as an upgrade in Mount Holyoke’s facilities in the last 10 years — namely the turf — which helps them compete with other successful field hockey programs.
The other big change is in the student-athlete. Whitcomb explains, “I feel bad for your generation. I feel bad that everything you do and say is recorded, every move you make … I think that adds a lot of unnecessary pressure that kids didn’t have a decade ago when there wasn’t all this social media stuff and 24/7 access to people. It saddens me.”
Moving forward, Whitcomb’s goals are ambitious: to win the conference, get an automatic bid to NEWMACs and to improve every day. Next year, the field hockey team will begin their pre-season in Australia, following the team’s tradition of spending pre-season abroad every four years.