By Jack Margaros
Around the end of last spring, Ryan Coale was at James Madison University. Wrapping up his bachelor’s degree in Sports and Recreation Management while catching for the Dukes, graduating was all but certain.
Although there was an element of uncertainty with his next step.
Coale had been playing baseball for most of his life up to this point, so an extended hiatus seemed to be the initial indication once his senior season came to a close.
“During the season and going through what I was going to do post-baseball, I didn’t really see myself engaged in baseball at all from this standpoint,” Coale said.
Springfield College soon altered that vision.
A graduate assistant position working with the baseball team opened up. Coale jumped at the opportunity to attend his parents’ alma mater.
“I see the people that come out of Springfield, like my mom like my dad, the character they portray and the way they raised a family and the successful careers that they’ve had,” Coale said. “I said if I want to be anything like them, I should go to Springfield.”
Delaney Dyjack entered the coaching realm as part of a pact. During her senior year while swimming at Springfield, she suffered a foot injury that lingered, sidelining her most of the season.
So, she came to an agreement with head coach John Taffe – a fifth year of swimming in return for a year of coaching the following season.
“Going through the process of season (as a player), you’d really think that it’s tiring,” Dyjack said. “I honestly thought I was tired then, and I had no idea.”
“As a player, you don’t see everything that happens behind the scenes; what the coaching staff does,” Colleen O’Connell, a first-year graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team said. “You’re always doing one thing or another to either prepare for the actual season or recruiting kids to come play.”
O’Connell captured two New Jersey Athletic Conference championships and guided Vassar to a Sweet 16 berth. Coale was a JUCO All-American before attending JMU. Dyjack ranked among the top 25 swimmers in Division III her junior season. Being former players, these graduate assistants are acclimated to the level of commitment it takes to perform their job at a high level.
Coaching tests them in a different way – it’s more mental strain.
“I’m put in situations that I’ve never been put in before,” Coale said. “It’s a different dynamic because I have so much responsibility.”
Recruiting trips, planning the schedule seasons in advance, curating practices and workouts for the current season and scouting opponents; all while attending practices, games and extending the occasional 1-on-1 coaching session with a player. Responsibility that doesn’t require as much physical exertion, but all of their mental capacity.
Not to mention a healthy dose of school work and a full schedule of classes in hopes of obtaining a master’s degree.
“As a player, you’re asked to perform and be on top of it every single day in practice and in games and be that vocal leader,” Allison Stoddard, former 1,000-point scorer turned women’s basketball GA said. “As a coach, you still are those things but it’s different in the way that you perform.”
What keeps Stoddard and O’Connell, who each came into Springfield with previous coaching experience, so enthralled with the profession? What was the draw for Coale and Dyjack to enter a job with such high demands on top of the pursuit of a masters degree?
“You look up to coaches and you see the amount of time you spend with them, the amount of influence they can have on you and that really attracted me to ‘well I really want to have a positive influence on players and students,’” Coale said.
For Michael Henchy, his passion roots from an overseas experience. After a four-year career at Ohio State, he took advantage of an opportunity to play professionally in Greece.
The team, according to Henchy, was poorly managed and coached. It trickled down to the players — no one was motivated. A back injury was the breaking point, where Henchy decided to call a quits.
“It lost all semblance of being fun,” Henchy said. “That also created the drive in me to become a coach…Having such a bad coaching experience made me say ‘okay I want to be able to do this differently and draw on those experiences’ and that really shaped me as a coach.”
His vision became a reality at Springfield. Completing his second year with the men’s volleyball team, he’s assumed a much larger role with the team and seen his coaching ability blossom as he’s become more acclimated.
Other coaches view their job as a way to stay attached to the game in a competitive atmosphere. Being forced to retire after four years as a player is sometimes too short.
“I miss playing every day. Every day. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t wish I could be playing,” O’Connell said. “Staying connected to a game that has really given you so much…I can’t imagine not being involved with it.”
Even more so, graduate assistants ideally want to relate to their players on a more personal level – take the extra time to not only increase their talent, but help their character as well.
“You look at that life aspect, see what I can do for them, and that’s really what I’ve tried to grasp,” Coale said. “Throughout the day I’m Googling catching drills that really help. I find myself following a lot of hitting accounts on social media, because I really care about (my players) and I want them to have a great season.”
It can be easier sometimes for graduate assistants to develop a lasting relationship with their players. They are just one to two years removed from a player’s mindset.
“Being closer to a playing experience, sometimes I have access to look at a guy and say, ‘oh he’s out of it today.’ Trying to think back about how I would have been better motivated on a bad day,” Henchy said. “I’m trying to help the guys on the court have the feelings I had as a player.”
Other times, relationships go too far. The difference in age is often one to two years, so graduate assistants must walk a fine line between establishing themselves as an authoritative figure while also maintaining a unique connection that a head coach may not be able to cultivate otherwise.
“It’s weird. It’s different because I’m so close in age to them,” Coale said. “Some of the guys are fifth years and I could technically be a fifth year.”
It’s complicated even further for Dyjack. She coaches former teammates.
“I don’t think anyone on the current team knew me before I was a junior, so I guess that’s made it easier just because I’ve had that upperclassmen role to them. There’s some days where I miss being friends with them all and being able to hang out with them,” she said.
Getting cut from a team used to be something that induced feelings of panic and apprehension — anxiously waiting for a coach’s decision on whether you made the team or not. Now, the roles are reversed. Graduate assistants are on the other side and aiding those decisions made by their coaches. It’s something Coale has never experienced, and he admits it’s tough.
“Seeing people that have put in the time, put in the effort, that are good people…I want to continue that relationship even if they’re not on the team,” he said.
No one wants to experience that feeling of denial when recruiting players for the program either. It only adds another layer of stress having to share the burden of replacing players who are departing after the season’s end. Even after nailing down potential targets, there still needs to be some persuasion to attend Springfield.
“There’s a lot of anxiety or nervousness or fear of rejection that can go into that,” Henchy said.
All of this has opened their eyes to a different perspective of watching their game, analyzing their game – a new means of participation. As Stoddard looks at situations through the lens of a coach, she can now empathize with her former and current overseers.
“It’s really cool to see. I’ll talk to my coaches now and say, ‘I get it!’ I understand their frustrations. I understand the stuff that they do.”
What started as an accessory to a master’s degree in Athletic Administration has now opened up a legitimate career path for Coale.
“I think I’ve always had a passion for (coaching), I’ve just been on the other side of it,” he said.
Dyjack didn’t expect to end up getting as attached as she is and has developed tools she didn’t even know were possible.
“It’s a huge turnaround from anything I’ve ever had to deal with before; and I kind of love it,” she explained. “I guess I really didn’t even realize I had a skill set for coaching.”
For Henchy, he’s just been named AVCA Division III Men’s National Assistant Coach of the Year. A poor experience as a player has in turn blazed a pathway to his eventual career.
“I feel like I get everything I want as a person (from coaching). I get fulfillment out and it and I very little complain about some of the things I have to do,” Henchy said. “It hasn’t necessarily relieved the pain of not being able to play anymore, but it’s been able to help me allow other guys to have the same feelings of joy and competitiveness that I had.”
Featured photos courtesy Springfield College Athletics