After 15 seasons as head coach of Taft's Varsity Field Hockey team, Rachael Ryan is stepping away from that role, in a game that has been a fixture in her life for more than 30 years. Ryan's legacy as head coach includes 10 winning seasons and nine tournament appearances, with a memorable trip to the New England finals in 2005.
"I became the head coach in 2003, a year with only three returning varsity players," recalls Ryan. "Almost every girl I had previously coached on the JV team moved up to varsity that year. By 2005, I had coached most of those girls for four years. That season we went undefeated, won the Founders League title, the Western New England title, and entered the tournament ranked the number one team in New England."
Despite beating a very talented Hotchkiss team just one week earlier, Taft bowed to Hotchkiss in the New England title game.
"We were the two best teams," says Ryan, "it was bound to happen. It was great that we went undefeated during the season, and great that we had such a strong tournament run."
And that, it seems, sums up Ryan's coaching philosophy: win with dignity, lose with dignity, and have some fun along the way.
"I feel very strongly that the team needs to be coached positively and be rewarded for working hard and doing the little things that make a difference," says Ryan. "The reason that we get out there is to have fun. That's always been really, really important to me. I was fortunate to have great teams and some seasons where we were very successful. But win or lose, I know that every season ended with the players feeling that we had had a great time together."
Kelsey Lloyd '09, a First-Team All-American who went on to play at Stanford University, agrees.
"In my more than ten years of playing field hockey, I have had a lot of coaches, but Ms. Ryan was different than the rest. There is a levity to her competitive spirit, a smile in her game-face, and a greater perspective in her heart that taught us to value the intangibles: integrity, selflessness, and the simple love of the game."
Ryan's simple love of the game began when she was a middle-schooler at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She went on to play at Georgetown University, then began her teaching and coaching careers, first at Renbrook, then at Blair Academy, where she led her team to a New Jersey state title.
"The game has changed a lot in the past 30 years," says Ryan, who hopes to continue working with Taft's team as an assistant coach. "It has changed for the better in so many ways. When I played, it was not a very dynamic game. Turning your shoulder was an obstruction, so you just had to play facing forward with very little contact; it was very difficult to play defense. Now there is no off sides, and you are allowed to move 360 degrees, so you can keep you feet and the ball moving. It is a much more exciting and fast-paced game."
And one that has punctuated Ryan's career with more than a few exciting moments. Including a return to tournament play in 2011 that felt like 2005 all over again.
"Both the semifinals and the finals were at Taft that year. We knew that in advance and worked really, really hard all season to get there," recalls Ryan. "We went to the semifinals at home against Hotchkiss. We had a game plan, and we executed it absolutely perfectly. The game ended 0-0 and two-ten minute overtimes ended 0-0, meaning the game would be decided by penalty strokes. It was tied at the very end. Hotchkiss had an amazing goalie who went on to be on the US National Team. She saved our stroker's final shot. That would have been my 100th win, but it had to wait until the first game of the 2012 season."
Ryan got her 100th win in 2012, and another 43 for good measure. And while her stats tell a pretty spectacular story, in the end, it is about so much more.
"I've coached field hockey for my entire adult life," says Ryan, "and it is something that has brought me tremendous joy and pride. There is nothing like working with young athletes, and watching them grow, develop, and find joy in being part of a team. Some of my most memorable moments have been after major events at school, when we walk up to the top of the hill and spend time talking as a team, physically separated from the rest of the community. Those moments are the greatest opportunities to learn beyond the x's and o's."
Join the conversation and share your memories of playing for Coach Ryan on the Facebook post linked to this story on the Horace Dutton Taft Facebook page (see below). Facebook comments will be added to this web page.
Kelsey Lloyd '09
Looking back, the years I spent playing field hockey with Ms. Ryan and that special squad are some of the purest and most treasured parts of my athletic career. It has been a joy and an honor to play for her, to learn from her, and to live my life with her leadership as my guide. Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for fifteen years of inspiring and empowering young women like me. You are cherished more than you know. Go Rhinos!
Leisl Morris '09
Coach Ryan's mentorship most showed through the multitude of team dinners at her home, the scavenger hunts, and bowling excursions. She taught me something invaluable, that there are many ways to strengthen group cohesion. I constantly use her methods of activities and good humor in my leadership roles, and they always produce the best results. Also, Coach Ryan was my first coach in the game that gave me three Big Ten Championships and a collection of wonderful memories. Thus, saying "Thank you, Coach Ryan" is the least I can do for a woman who has had such an impact on my life.
Abby Hine '07
The success Rachel has had on the field proves itself from the record books. It is clear she knows the game inside and out. But beyond the game, Rachel finds a way to build the inner tiger in her young players that have no recognition of their current capabilities. She built a confidence in me that I didn't even know I had, one that allowed me to become a collegiate All-American athlete, all-time leading scorer, captain, and leader. Rachel's coaching has served as a foundation for hundreds of young women, with lessons that transcend the game of field hockey to reach far beyond it. I truly attribute my success as an athlete and young professional to the guidance, support, and assurance she provided me in such a critical time of my life.
Audrey Quirk '14
I am honored to have had the opportunity to play for Coach Ryan. She instilled in me values of courage, dedication and responsibility that guide me in all aspects of my life. I am perhaps most gracious, though, that she taught and inspired me to lead. Her conviction and resilience will be missed in the world of athletics but will surely be passed down by those who were fortunate enough to call her Coach.
Hope Kremer '06
So lucky to have you as a coach!! Xoxo
Wow!! Congratulations on a fantastic career! You have touched the lives of so many women and in so many ways!! I'm sure you will be missed.
Abbey Palesty '05
Congratulations on a wonderful career as a coach! We were all lucky to be a part of your team!
Sally Maloney Duval
Congratulations on a fantastic career Rachael!
Jennifer Zaccara, former faculty
Rachael, you have been so instrumental in building this sport at Taft. I can't imagine being the head coach who tries to follow your great work! Yet you will be her greatest ally.
Amy Feda '13
Thank you for everything Ms. Ryan!!!! Although reading the article and realizing that your 100th win would've been 'that' Hotchkiss game brings up a lot of feelings, the most prominent in my mind is of your hug and reassurance after that penalty stroke slipped be me. In that moment of ultimate defeat for a goalie, you somehow changed my disappointment into motivation, and my sadness into pride for the amazing season and game we had. That's the magic of a truly great coach, and I am so thankful for your guidance on the turf, in life, and through my college career!
Kelley Roberts Bogardus, former faculty
Wait!? What!?!? What!?!? Huh!?! Congratulations on your time at the helm!!!!! I can't believe you're stepping down!!!! What!?!?
Greg Hawes, spouse, faculty member
Watching her coach for over two decades, I was always blown away with how - when her team was down - she found ways to pick them back up. She never berated her team when they were down. She always expected and nurtured the best in her players.
Conor Ryan Tung, family member
So proud of you!
Congrats to coach and all she has done to make TAFT a better place. Good puck.
Emily DuPont Gotowka
The end of an amazing era! You are truly one of a kind; as a teacher, coach, and mentor I learned so much from you. I remember winning the "big" trophy with you. Thank you for years of empowering women through sports.
-Bridget Brennan Hodakowski: Amen Emily DuPont Gotowka. Couldn't have said it better. Congrats Coach Ryan
-Greg Hawes: Emily and Bridget: She is so proud of the fine people you've become.
Congratulations on your long and successful legacy of leadership and empowerment of young women through Field Hockey, Rachael.
Laura Eanes Martin
Wow!!! Congrats RAR!! ❤️ This is a great tribute!
Sam Routhier, former faculty
Congrats RAR! You are a great role model and leader for the Taft community
Caitlin Gritt '03
Congrats, Ms. Ryan, and thanks for your awesome leadership!
Jessica Matzkin Shactman
Woo-Hoo. . . awesome!
You're so incredibly photogenic and look the same as you did at Blair!!!
Supriya Balsekar Booth '04
Congratulations on an amazing run!!! You were, and continue to be, an inspiration to me!
Ally Carr '06
Thank you for being such an amazing coach and mentor!! Congratulations on an incredible career!
Ginger O'Shea, Taft faculty
Congratulations Rachael! So many terrific girls are wonderful women because of your influence. I always enjoyed our coaching talks! Ginger
Al Reiff '80, Taft faculty
Congrats Rachael. You have done a great job and now it's your turn to take a break.