By Evan Wheaton
After closing and locking the door to her office, Ann Simons begins walking along the yellow floor down the corridor at Forest Park Middle School. As students sprint through the bustling halls, one runs up to her.
As she leans down to meet him, the boy wraps his arms around her tightly.
“Oh, I love my hugs,” Simons says affectionately.
As she calls her elevator, some kids are roughhousing at the top of the stairwell. Like the flip of a switch, the tough love comes out.
“Hey, what’s going on up there?” Simons sternly calls out to the students as she peers in their direction.
There are appropriate times for affection as well as holding people accountable.
Just ask Simons.
Once the elevator brings her to the faculty parking lot, she moves toward her black Mercedes 350 and retrieves a black T-shirt from the back. “LONGMEADOW FIELD HOCKEY” is proudly displayed at the top in red and white lettering. Below that are 39 season records along with the corresponding postseason accomplishments, most notably 14 sectional championships.
Below all of this is a career win/loss record.
On Sept. 17, 2019, Simons earned her 500th win as the Longmeadow High School field hockey team’s head coach. The 4-2 victory came at Agawam High School’s expense. It put Longmeadow at 4-0 on the season, and the Lancers were already on pace to win their ninth-consecutive Western Massachusetts Championship.
The seeds to Simons’ success today were planted long ago.
A Springfield College graduate of 1981, she was a dual-sport athlete for two years, playing softball and field hockey. During her two-year collegiate career as well as her four years of academics, she evolved through Spirit, Mind, and Body, the mantra of the institution.
Drawing inspiration from Dottie Zenaty and Diane Potter, two coaching icons and pioneers in women’s athletics at Springfield College, Simons has established a reputation for herself – one that has her slated to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of her hometown, West Springfield, on Nov. 27.
Throughout her illustrious coaching career, she has always kept the very same values that were deeply ingrained from her time on Alden Street and instills them into her players.
“Some things never change, I mean, that’s the Triangle,” Simons said. “I think I try to live by that model also. But it’s more mental now. In their heads, they need to figure it out; they have to come prepared. They have to want it and push for it. Sometimes they just get a little lazy.”
Generation after generation comes and goes, and each one requires different coaching. But the one constant is the need to put in the work.
“I think the old-timers, people like me, we know what it’s like,” Simons said. “You have to be ready every single day. You have to play you’re A-game, bring your A-game to the field always.”
Currently making a deep postseason run with this year’s Longmeadow Lancers, Simons has looked back on how she’s been able to sustain the program’s dynasty.
Upon graduation in 1981, Simons was a new coach at Longmeadow High. Following a 1-8-5 season (one of only two losing seasons in Simon’s tenure), the program was rebranded from the ground up through what Springfield College prides itself on.
“I think tradition has a lot to do with our success,” Simons said. “I think they (the Longmeadow field hockey players) don’t want to let each other down because it’s such a tight community, because we didn’t have soccer back when I started. It was just field hockey and it was all one single division.”
Once soccer began growing as a sport in the area, field hockey broke into two divisions within Western Mass. This new system gave schools a chance to grow their programs – and Longmeadow hit the ground running.
“Once we broke into Division-I and Division-II, we were just steamrolling,” Simons said. “Even then in the beginning, we were probably the top team in the area.”
Newspaper clippings detailing Longmeadow’s success decorate the walls. A long, horizontal banner underneath team photos reads, “SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE 125 Years of Leadership in Service to Others.” Dotted in between all of these are inspirational quotes scrawled on index cards.
These decorations carry out into the conjoined locker room. Draped on the far wall hangs a blue MIAA Western Massachusetts Division I Field Hockey Championship banner. Out of the various names scrawled across it in black sharpie, two of them stick out among the rest: “Kyra Ashe” and “Sydney Harris.”
These previous Longmeadow players now find themselves among the Springfield College field hockey team accompanied by Taylor Low, another former Lancer.
Ashe and Harris arrived together after Low, and coming from such a dominant program, as well as a coach who has fully adopted the Springfield College mantra, the transition to the collegiate level was seamless.
“I think it was that much easier, one because she came to Springfield, she knows how this works, she prepared us for this,” Ashe said. “Also, since I already have two teammates from high school, I know how they play. Those are two players I already have good chemistry with.”
Their fellowship on the field was crafted through four years of experience with Simons’ coaching demeanor.
“She gave us tough love and showed us that she cared about us, but she wanted to really push us to achieve the most we could and not take the easy road,” Low said.
Over the years, Simons has been able to tell the difference between fatigue and laziness.
And the latter was never tolerated.
“She always made us work our absolute hardest,” Ashe said. “She knew if you weren’t working your hardest and she’d call you out on it.”
Above all else, Simons has prioritized a focus on the mental side of Spirit, Mind, and Body. It goes well beyond endless running and working hard physically in order to endure the season mentally.
More than anything, Simons carried the tradition of mental toughness with her from Springfield. In order to see the side of her that would accompany a hug in the hallway, a player has to earn it.
It was tough love.
“I like that she kept traditions alive,” Harris said. “We had the same pregame rituals (and) pre-postseason rituals. After the games, she’d tell us the truth on how we played and how we were really bad or really good, which kind of helped us with mental toughness, and it kept us in check so our heads didn’t blow up if we did get a good win, to remember to stay grounded… you needed to work hard to get her to smile at you.
“She’ll tell you like it is. You need to take what she’s saying and turn it into something positive for yourself. She creates an environment in which you need to work hard physically and learn from it mentally and put the pieces together.”
The brutal honesty was just that.
“I remember one Sunday morning, she called me a freight train because I couldn’t control my body, and since then, I’ve worked really hard to integrate those skills into the collegiate level, and I think it’s helped me; I run into people less,” Harris said, as Low and Ashe chuckled.
For such a dominant field hockey program, Longmeadow has a simple formula that Simons has employed over the past four decades. Players work hard physically to handle the duration of the season mentally. And when it all comes together and they get their desired results, they’re rewarded emotionally.
With this year’s field hockey season in the books for Springfield, the bonds remain stronger than ever. Like many of her former Lancers, Low, Harris, and Ashe have all forged a relationship with Simons that carries over to the collegiate level and beyond.
“She’ll text us before preseason and before games and be like, ‘I’m proud of all you guys, keep working hard, I know you’re capable of doing great and make us proud,’” Low said.
Ashe added, “To this day she still always checks in. I still text her every week at least and (she’s) always checking in to see how we’re doing here. It’s nice to know that she cares.”
Next year will mark the 40th year of the Simons era at Longmeadow. Despite claiming to have plenty of gas left in the tank, she knows that year 40 is the cutoff point.
“You have to set a number somewhere, otherwise you keep going and going,” Simons said. “And that’s the reason why I have 13 juniors on varsity. I’ve decided that’s my last class I’ll be with.”
On a crisp fall morning at roughly 9 a.m., Kelly Gallo looks on at the Lancers’ practice through her sunglasses at Elms College. Due to the lack of a turf field at Longmeadow, this has become a second home for the program.
Several Lancers are zipping up and down the field, passing to one another and working through drills in the light of the rising sun. The team is preparing for a big game against Minnechaug, a very strong field hockey program, which would fall to the Lancers the following day, 2-0.
The current JV coach and head coach of the girls’ lacrosse team at Longmeadow, Gallo has been Simon’s assistant for three seasons now.
They’ll soon embark on their final ride together.
“Ann has been great to work with, I’m so fortunate to be able to coach with her every day,” Gallo said. “I learn so much every single season, so I’m looking forward to our next season as well and our last one together.”
Having graduated from Springfield College in 2014 after being a dual sport athlete in lacrosse and field hockey herself, she too plans to keep the Triangle alive in the heart of the program.
If all goes according to plan, Gallo is slated to succeed Simons after next year.
“The future looks great, a couple outstanding eighth graders, and the sixth graders are great, so hopefully Kelly takes over for me,” Simons said. “She’s ready. It’s her time.”
Gallo is more than ready to make the transition, though Simons will still be heavily involved.
“She (Simons) said, ‘I’ll be there,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be sitting on the bench with us,’ and she’ll work camps throughout the summer and definitely have a presence still in the program,” Gallo said. “She (Simons) says that I’m going to be her successor, but I can only hope that I’ll be able to step in and try to fill her shoes.
“If I’m fortunate enough and the program is given to me through the interview process, then I’ll give it my heart like she’s given it the past 39-40 years.”
Not dissimilar to keeping up with her former players, Simons will be able to assist Gallo during the hard times while being just a phone call away. And whether it’s running summer camps or attending games, Simons will never stray far from the sport.
It isn’t just the Longmeadow and Springfield College field hockey programs that have bright futures ahead of them. It’s the players who grow in Spirit, Mind, and Body that carry with them the traditions of success beyond the sport.
Photos courtesy of Evan Wheaton