When Johnson & Wales head women’s lacrosse coach Jenn Thomas got a phone call from her former college head coach, Kristen Mullady, on July 10, it wasn’t a surprise. The two had remained good friends and stayed in touch over the years.
“I’m thinking that she’s just wishing me a happy belated birthday,” Thomas said.
But when Thomas answered the phone, she sensed that something was off.
“I could tell her tone of voice was very odd,” Thomas said. Instead of being her normal cheerful self, Mullady was more reserved, as if she had something big to get off her chest.
She then dropped a bomb.
After 13 storied seasons leading the Springfield College women’s lacrosse team, Mullady explained to Thomas that she was stepping away from the position to be closer to her family. Thomas was one of the first people to find out.
Initially, the news shocked Thomas. She thought back to her years as a player just a decade prior, and how it was the end of an era at Springfield. But Mullady had other plans. Throughout the hour-long conversation, it became clear why she had called Thomas, specifically.
“She started dropping hints like, ‘Well, it’s gonna be open soon,’” Thomas said. “I was just like, ‘Okay,’ but I didn’t really pick up on it because I was so focused on her and everything she accomplished; telling her thank you, etc. Then towards the end, she was like, ‘Well, if you want to apply for [the job], I think you’d be great there.’”
At first, Thomas was hesitant, considering things were going well at Johnson & Wales. In her two-year stint there, she was named the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2022 and led the Wildcats to an appearance in the 2021 NCAA Division III Championship Tournament after winning the 2021 GNAC Championship. Also under her leadership, the Wildcats earned the Team Sportsmanship Award in 2022.
But after putting further thought into it, and with more persuasion from Mullady, Thomas decided to take the job as Springfield College head women’s lacrosse coach.
Growing up in Waterford, Conn., Thomas played basketball and soccer, and didn’t pick up lacrosse until later in her high school career. When she did eventually pick up the sport, however, she became a star; and it may date back to her first tryout for her high school team, Waterford High.
“I show up and the coach goes, ‘What are you doing, Jenn? That’s a boy’s stick. You can’t try out with a mens stick,’” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘There’s a difference?’”
The coach told Thomas she had 30 minutes to find a stick, so she called her mom and begged her to take her to Dick’s Sporting Goods. They bought the only option they found and raced back just in time.
“I joke around now and I say that I got really strong stick skills because I was playing with a tennis racket,” Thomas said. “It had no pocket, it was a $29 stick and I played with that the first year. But I fell in love with the game. It was so addicting.”
After high school, Thomas was recruited to play at the collegiate level at American International College (AIC), where she played for two years on an athletic scholarship. But while she was there, she knew something didn’t feel quite right.
“I knew in the back of my mind I probably wanted to end up at Springfield, but because [AIC] was offering an athletic scholarship, it was pretty hard to turn it down,” Thomas said. “I really realized though, after probably my second or first semester of sophomore year, that I was going to come to Springfield.”
Once she arrived on Alden Street, Thomas immediately made an impact on the field. In her three years of playing for the Pride, she was a two-time captain, and won two NEWMAC championships, the first one also being Mullady’s first as a coach, in 2012.
After graduating in 2014 from Springfield, Thomas stayed in the lacrosse realm, but this time she stayed on the sidelines as a coach at Mount Holyoke College. After one season, she left to become a graduate assistant at Mercyhurst University.
After a two-year stint at Mercyhurst, Thomas was offered the head coach position at Western Connecticut, which she ended up taking thanks to a little push from her biggest mentor: Coach Mullady.
“When I got the offer from WCU I flew to Bradley and I drove right up here, and I sat in this office that we’re in right now,” Thomas said. “I asked [Mullady] ’What do I do? I’m almost done with my masters, or do I take this job?’ She responded with, ‘Are you dumb? You take the job.’”
After taking over the reins at Western Connecticut, Thomas turned the once lowly-regarded Wolves into a highly respected powerhouse, her best season coming in 2019, when she led the team to a 14-5 overall record and a second-round appearance in the LEC tournament.
Then the pandemic hit.
“We didn’t have a season in 2020 and then going into the fall of 2021 was really tough,” Thomas said. “We had so many restrictions, and we weren’t sure if we were gonna play in the spring… I remember the Johnson & Wales position opened up and I had been home now for almost 10 to 11 months at that point. My family, and being close to home, was important to me, and decided that this could be a good opportunity. I’m ready to start something fresh. So I applied and I got it.”
After two great years, the Springfield position opened, and here we are today.
Although she notes that taking over the position of one of her biggest mentors is a big task, Thomas has returned to Springfield with open arms. “For one, it’s an honor,” Thomas said. “Not just to have her recommendation, but to step into this office, where I would come in and talk to her as a player — it’s so full circle. It still doesn’t feel real. It’s huge shoes to fill…But I’m really excited.”
Thomas expects great things for her future at Springfield College, and credits most of that to the work done by coaches of the past.
“I truly think that Springfield has such a good foundation,” Thomas said. “All the other schools that I was at, it was creating the foundation and that can be so hard… Coming in here, there’s already a foundation, so it’s really just building upon it. I think that we’re going to continue to have success, and I’m excited to see how much more we can bring.”
Photo: Springfield College Athletics