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When she talks about her coaching philosophy, Ginger O'Shea likes to say that she believes one person can make a difference. For the past 37 years (the last 18 of them at Taft) she has been that person for scores of young volleyball players.
"It has never been about x's and o's for me," says O'Shea, who recently announced that she is stepping down as head coach of Taft's varsity volleyball team. "It has always been about building relationships. The scoreboard is important, but I understand that the scoreboard lights are turned off at the end of the game, while relationships between players and coaches can stay illuminated for a lifetime."
O'Shea keeps in touch with members of her very first volleyball team, and every team after. Fresh out of college and only a few years older than her high school players, O'Shea started coaching volleyball in the 1980s at a small, independent school in south Florida—despite knowing very little about the game, and having even less to work with.
"We actually played our first season on the grass outside," says Sheila Corbin Johnson, a member of that first team. "She had to paint the lines in the grass herself, but we had so much fun."
As it turns out, having no gym and practicing outside had its advantages.
"The football team was working out next to us," recalls O'Shea. "Their coach seemed really good, and really good at motivating his players. I'd watch him coach and say, 'Wow, this is great.' I started running practices and drills the way he did. We were lean on wins that season, but we all learned that success can be achieved in so many different ways and on so many different levels."
O'Shea stayed in Florida four more seasons before moving north to earn a master's degree in psychology from Columbia University. For the next 14 years, she taught and coached at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a tenure punctuated by nine Fairchester League Volleyball Championships, 10 League Tournament Championships, two New England Prep Small School Tournament Championships, and an introduction to her number one fan, husband Tim. O'Shea was excited to bring her talent and experience to Taft in 2001, where her impact was immediate and significant.
"I had only been at Taft for about three weeks when the school had its first scheduled free day of the year," O'Shea recalls. "The athletic trainer at the time asked me about our practice schedule for the day. I said I had given the girls the day off—that we were pacing ourselves for the New England tournament. She laughed and said, 'This volleyball team has never been to a New England tournament.' I thought to myself. 'We can go; we can make it to the tournament.' And we did."It was a proud moment for O'Shea, one that she feels speaks to her legacy—and philosophy—as a coach.
"I see myself as a guide, helping people get to places they might not have realized they could get to on their own," says O'Shea who credits Sports Psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella with first articulating that analogy. "I show them how to use what is already inside them. I help them find those inner resources and make the most of them. My players trust me to guide them on that journey, because they know I would do anything for them. It's not really complicated—it's just heart and soul, I guess."
O'Shea went on to build one of the strongest volleyball programs in New England. Last season, she celebrated her 500thcareer win, with son Mack in the stands, and husband Tim watching a live stream feed from his desk at work. She added one more win for good measure to close out her season and her storied Taft career, a highlight of which, O'Shea says, was coaching her daughter, Rita Catherine, for three seasons.
Over the years, her Taft teams logged 15 New England Tournament appearances in 18 seasons, and, to the delight of Tafties everywhere, 12 Hotchkiss Day wins. Last year, the team posted a 17-2 record and was ranked second in New England. But for O'Shea, it isn't the numbers that matter—it's the people she met along the way. Her desk is covered with notes from former students and parents, many now friends who feel like family. Her phone exploded with congratulatory texts from former players, families, advisees, and other coaches when she hit the 500 win mark last fall. Her walls and shelves overflow with photo albums, memorabilia, and framed pictures of teams dating back to the 1980s. O'Shea can grab any photo from any team in any decade, and proudly tell you where those women are today, and what they have accomplished along the way—a teacher of the year in Florida, an investment associate, a Penn Fellow at Northfield Mount Herman, a standout player at Williams, a teacher and coach at The Gunnery, and a young woman who returned to Taft to coach volleyball alongside her mentor.
O'Shea says she believes that timing is everything, and that this simply felt like the right time to step away from the volleyball court. She will continue to teach at Taft, manage the tour guide program, and coach girls' varsity golf. She looks forward to spending more time watching Mack play hockey, more time planning Rita Catherine's wedding, and more time playing golf.
"I can still picture Ginger on the side of the volleyball court holding up her fist and saying, 'breathe,'" says former player Cassie Ruscz '13.
Now, it seems, it's O'Shea's turn to breathe.
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Reisa Bloch Taft '05
It is an honor to share the profound impact Ginger has had on my life. The lessons learned on the volleyball court still resonate with me, eighteen years later. As I face my own life challenges, I often think about the life skills that emerged under her coaching. She taught me to dig deep and to develop a mental toughness that has helped me push through challenging situations by setting incremental goals in the accomplishment of a larger goal. She taught me success is achieved one point at a time.
No teacher or coach has had a greater impact on my personal development and outlook on life. While her incredible 37-year athletic coaching career is coming to an end, I know she will undoubtedly continue to shape the lives of her students past, present and future.
Cassie Ruscz, Taft '13
Ginger was such an incredible coach for so many athletes at such a crucial point in their lives. She made the court a home and our team a family. Just to remind us all of this, she would frequently sing "We are Family" and force all of us (at the time) reluctant teenagers to sing along with her. My best memories from my years at Taft have all come from my time on the volleyball team in large part due to Ginger O'Shea. From being stuck at a volleyball camp (with no electricity or running water) in Maine in the middle of a hurricane to running circuits on Mental Toughness Days (every Monday and Thursday because we had all our classes on those days), Ginger was always the driving force that kept our team pushing forward and constantly laughing despite the biggest obstacles. In tough times, I can still picture Ginger on the side of the court holding up her fist and saying, "Breathe." Now that I have graduated and gone onto being a teacher and coach myself, Ginger continues to mentor me and cheer me on from the sideline, so to me, she will always be Coach O'Shea. My heart is broken for all of the athletes who will not have the privilege of having Ginger as a coach, but she deserves every second of her peaceful and golf-filled retirement. I will always be eternally grateful for having Ginger O'Shea in my life.
Sheila Corbin Johnson, of Ginger O'Shea's first volleyball team:
When I first met "Miss O'Leary," I never thought that we would be friends 37 years later. Day 1 of her career... I was a brat, she was a young teacher and coach. Small private school and we actually played volleyball our first season on the grass outside. She had to paint the lines! We had so much fun.
We've laughed harder than I thought was possible, we have cried, and have had so many life lessons together. I can't even begin to tell you how many stories we have amongst all of my friends and teammates... and those were the first five years!