Brittany Fradkin can sense when Washington & Jefferson College women’s lacrosse coach Tracy Coyne is having a rough day, one when Coyne’s care for her ailing father has been especially tough to provide.
Pay attention, Fradkin thinks. Try a little harder.
Give Fradkin credit. She gets it. You don’t mess with a Division I coach.
And despite her current role as the head coach of an NCAA Division III program that’s been around since 2008, that’s exactly what Coyne is.
Coyne has enjoyed successful stints as the head coach of the Canadian National Team and at Notre Dame – the university, not the college. Yet when her father, Leo, began to experience signs of dementia and his health took a turn for the worst, Coyne moved home to Western Pennsylvania, giving W&J a serious ringer when it comes to women’s lacrosse.
“You can tell she has a lot of experience with the game and knowledge of where to be on the field, how to run practices,” Fradkin said. “She also has a ton of connections in the lacrosse world. I know she consults a lot of former colleagues for advice and whatnot.”
But there was little Coyne could do for this one.
‘It was time to take a break’
After struggling to make it home to see her mother, Nancy, who was placed in hospice care and who eventually died during the 2009 spring season – ironically one of Coyne’s best at Notre Dame – the idea of being away from home started to weigh on Coyne.
“It was hard,” said Coyne, who grew up in the Green Tree/Crafton area and attended Bishop Canevin High School. “Everything that I was doing … I was really, really busy. On the team’s day off, I’d fly home, then I’d be back. It was a crazy schedule, and it was very stressful.
“It was time to take a break, regroup and refocus.”
So far, that has meant breathing life into a program that has just 14 players on its roster, in an area where lacrosse often takes a back seat to other spring sports.
Coyne, who has never been married and does not have children, estimates that she uses roughly 20 percent of her offensive system from Notre Dame, where she led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA Tournament in six of her final 10 years, including the program’s first Big East title in 2009.
Instead of installing different systems, Coyne talks about retention rate and not wanting to throw too much at her players at one time.
“I feel like the players haven’t been exposed to as many ideas of tactical types of things,” Coyne said. “I probably haven’t been as tactical with them as I would like to be, because I’m trying to meet the team where they are instead of trying to make them into something they’re not. But I would say that what we do at practice is probably very similar to what we did at Notre Dame, just sometimes I have to go into a little more detail in explaining some things.”
A coach and her team
Fradkin leads the Presidents (2-6) with 27 goals, while Kelsey Kraus is second with 16. Overall, W&J has been outscored, 67-76.
But while the results lately haven’t been what Coyne would like – or, with a career record of 261-124, what she’s used to – she has enjoyed the opportunity to take care of her dad, cook dinner for him and get reacquainted with her nephews.
“I was pretty much on the road constantly with recruiting; I was probably in five states in five different days on some summer days when I was at Notre Dame,” Coyne said. “I’ve gone from that to trying to get to Giant Eagle once a week to make sure that we have dinner.”
Coyne has enjoyed the perks of home: going to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Civic Light Opera shows, frequenting the city’s cultural district and bragging about her alma mater, Bishop Canevin.
“It’s seems to be a good thing for me right now from a family standpoint,” Coyne said.
The excitement has been mutual.
According to Fradkin and senior goalkeeper Julia McLellan, it’s the perfect marriage: The players enjoy Coyne’s tutelage and offer support for what their coach is going through. Coyne, as a result, respects their wishes to pursue other activities at the Division III school.
“There will be times she’s late or has to miss practice because of something going on with her family,” McLellan said. “We’re definitely well aware of the situation, but it’s nice having a coach we can connect to on that level. I know I’ve never had that close of a relationship with a coach.”
Is this crazy?
Given all she has seen, Coyne surprisingly isn’t bitter. Sure, she’d like to revamp how Division III trains its officials, maybe drum up some interest for the sport, but she mostly enjoys the game.
She’s sometimes surprised – no, frustrated – at what other Division III coaches will run on offense or defense, preferring to keep things simple for her own team.
“How they run draws, different defenses, it’s crazy,” Coyne said. “That’s what surprises me more than anything else. I think some of it has trickled down from Division I, but do I necessarily think that other people should be running some of those systems? No, I don’t.”
The Presidents’ Athletic Conference added unofficial women’s lacrosse tournaments this year and next and will hold a formal postseason event starting with the 2014-15 school year.
Good thing, too.
As Coyne sees it, Western Pennsylvania has plenty of athletes, but the region can use a boost when it comes to lacrosse, a boost she’s more than happy to provide.
“Coaching is coaching, and you try to bring out the best in people no matter where you are,” Coyne said. “Maybe the skill level is different, but you’re still trying to get people to perform at their best by tapping into people and figuring out what works for them.”
It was an unorthodox career step for Coyne, but one she wouldn’t change for anything.
“I think a lot of people think it’s crazy,” she said. “But people who know me well know how strong my family ties are.”