By Hayden Choate
When Colleen O’Connell was a junior on the Vassar College women’s basketball team, she was preparing for the season when it all suddenly slipped away. She went down on a wet court, causing extensive damage to half of her knee that ended her season two weeks before it had even started.
Spending the season in recovery, O’Connell, a four-year captain, became a student assistant coach. She had never thought about coaching at the college level – at least, until one game where everything changed.
At halftime, O’Connell went out of her comfort zone and made a suggestion to her coach about adjusting a play. As the game went on, her coach called a timeout, turned to her in the huddle and said, “Colleen, come here and draw up on the board what you told me at halftime for the team.”
The team ran the play successfully and scored. It was at that moment that O’Connell knew she wanted to coach.
“I had goosebumps,” O’Connell said. “I had never screamed so loud in my life. I got lightheaded, it was such a rush and that gave me a tremendous amount of confidence during that season to start approaching my teammates in a different way as a coach rather than as their captain or as their teammate, and that inspired me to pursue coaching.”
Now in her fourth season as a graduate assistant coach with the Springfield College women’s basketball team, O’Connell got her Master’s degree in 2020 in Athletic Administration from Springfield and is currently in the PhD program studying Physical Education with a concentration in Teaching and Administration.
Before coming to Alden Street, she was the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Montclair State University close to her hometown of Maywood, New Jersey. O’Connell knew one of the former graduate assistants at Springfield and met head coach Naomi Graves at a recruiting event over four years ago.
“The mentorship that I’ve received from Coach Graves has been instrumental,” O’Connell said. “She’s someone who has helped me develop as a person, as a leader and then as a coach.”
Since she came to Springfield, O’Connell has tried to gain as much knowledge as she can from everyone around her.
“It’s been a learning process for me,” O’Connell said. “What I think Springfield has taught me is that you can learn from every experience and you should be learning from every person.”
“You don’t know it all; I learn from the players everyday, I learn from Coach Graves everyday, I learn from Carolee Pierce everyday, I learn from my professors everyday. Through learning, we’re able to coach better and be better leaders.”
In the past four years, O’Connell has made plenty of memories with the team, but the ones that stand out the most are the little moments, day in and day out.
“It’s all the little moments and those moments happen in conversations and staff meetings,” O’Connell said. “The way that we laugh about things, the way that we strategize about things, we get frustrated about things, those are some of my favorite moments. Being able to be with the players, little moments in practices, answering questions, helping them, making them laugh, sometimes just taking the pressure off, bumping into them on campus, just being there for each other.”
Since joining the coaching staff four years ago, O’Connell has tried to not only be a coach but be a source of support on and off the court.
“I think that’s what makes a difference, being able to have a player listen to you on the bench and look you in the eyes and trust you and believe what you’re saying to them and rely on that.”
“She’s a great friend, mentor and role model to the team,” senior Grace Dzindolet said. “Everyone knows that they can turn to her for advice, regardless if it’s about basketball, life or school.”
In addition to the relationships she has built, O’Connell loves to watch and study film of other teams and her own. O’Connell finds and breaks down every little detail possible when it comes to strategizing for games.
“Sometimes I forget how long I’m in front of the computer,” O’Connell said.
“I love watching film, I love breaking it down, I think that it’s incredibly valuable. It came from first having my injury in college. I started watching film really intensely then.”
“I’ve learned so much from her it’s unbelievable,” said fellow graduate assistant Carolee Pierce who is in her first season as a coach.
“We lost that game to MIT and the first thing we did was like, ‘Okay, we got to watch film,’ and she puts so much work into this too.
“When we scout, she stays up late and gets all the sets, every set, every call, any different tweak that they put in a set. What Grace said is true; she is the brain surgeon, she’s so meticulous and so tactical.”
O’Connell graduated from Vassar with a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior. One day at practice, Dzindolet labeled O’Connell “the brain surgeon” because of her immense attention to detail.
“She mentioned how she did neuroscience for a little and wanted to be a brain surgeon,” Dzindolet said. “It made perfect sense because she’s a perfectionist with her basketball plans. She does scout for us and she understands every play, every cut, sprint, or read to the basket.”
Preparation is something that O’Connell has worked hard at since she started coaching because she has seen how it can be beneficial for her team.
“Information builds confidence as a staff and our strategic plan and also in players, knowing what’s going to happen when it happens now. That’s not to say we need to know everything, but knowing the right thing at the right time and knowing when to do the next right thing is a skill, and I think that comes from studying your opponent and ultimately studying your own team.”
“I just think anytime she’s explaining something you can see how much work she puts into understanding and dissecting every single play and it blows my mind,” Dzindolet said.
Being able to be a part of a game she has loved since she was five years old, O’Connell is grateful for the people that have come into her life through basketball.
“It’s really about the connections,” O’Connell said. “I was talking to my old college teammate earlier; the people are the best part, hands down it’s why I do what I do.”
“Honestly, I would trust Colleen with my life,” Pierce said. “She keeps me going a lot of the times when I come in, I struggled a lot in the first semester and I was pouring emotions and she was always like, ‘Listen, you’re smart, you’re a good person, you know basketball.’”
Having been able to play and coach basketball, O’Connell considers herself fortunate to be with people who enjoy it as much as she does.
“Love the game,” O’Connell said.
“It’s one of those things that just runs in your blood. There’s no comparison to it, and to be with a group of people that love it as much as you do is really awesome.”
Photo: Springfield College Athletics