Spending time away from field hockey has made UConn's Stevens 'a better coach'

New London — Chrissy Needham played for head coach Nancy Stevens and the UConn field hockey program. Needham remembers walks to the field with Stevens where they would end up talking about topics other than field hockey, such as the book the coach was currently reading.

“One of the things that attracted me to UConn is how cerebral she is,” said Needham, now the head coach at Connecticut College. “… She's inspiring as a leader. She motivates a lot through education.”

Stevens proceeded to prove Needham right, delivering a guest address at Tuesday's Women's LeadHERship Symposium at the Coast Guard Academy's Otto Graham Hall of Athletic Excellence which was far-reaching.

Stevens, having just completed her 27th season at UConn and 38th overall, has led the Huskies to seven of the last 11 Final Fours and is the all-time wins leader in NCAA field hockey history in all divisions with 639.

Her speech to the attendees of the conference included parallels between athletics and books — one called “Illuminate; Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols” — and comparing sporting concepts to what she's learned by watching the animals on numerous African safaris in which she's partaken.

“I spend most of my time outside athletics,” Stevens said. “I think that makes me a better coach.”

Away from the podium, Stevens, whose teams won back-to-back national championships in 2013-14, said her motivation in coaching every season is to find the right combinations on the field.

“What you end up doing is you see it through the players' eyes,” Stevens said. “The freshmen have never been to a Final Four before and the seniors remember it from last time around. So any time, it's special.”

It was the second time Stevens has attended the athletic-based women's leadership event at Coast Guard, which celebrated its sixth anniversary with more than 120 collegiate coaches and administrators in attendance.

Patti Phillips, the CEO of the National Association of Collegiate Women's Athletics Administrators, delivered the keynote address. A coaches panel was made up of Marist volleyball coach Lauren Amundson, Stonehill basketball coach Trisha Brown and MIT softball coach Jen Williams.

“It's not the Women's March on Washington, but it's a gathering of women and everyone here in this room is working to empower young women at the collegiate level to go on and do remarkable things in their careers,” Stevens said. “CEO, COO, CFO, the vast majority of these women (who hold those titles in business) have played intercollegiate sports and that's a fact. We really feel that the values we are transmitting and the character that is being built in athletics translates into success in life and we are really proud to be a part of that.”

It was in 2014, when the UConn men's and women's basketball teams also won national championships, that Stevens took part in a holiday video with basketball coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie, with each sneaking in to put their championship trophy a little bit closer to the center of the mantel.

Stevens said that being a part of the successful athletic department at UConn certainly helps with recruiting — “as one of the speakers said today, a rising tide lifts all ships,” she said.

Stevens likes to point out that Needham selected UConn over Princeton and Georgetown because of UConn's fifth-year Master's program in education.

“I grew up in Connecticut,” said Needham, who is a graduate of Haddam-Killingworth and graduated from UConn in 2001. “To have the opportunity to play at the University of Connecticut was such an honor for me. Nancy was building something special. She sets her expectations very high; you know where they are.”

Needham just completed her third season at Conn, having formerly been the head coach at American International College in Springfield and Kenyon College in Ohio. She played in two Final Fours at UConn and was a four-time Big East Academic All-Star.

“No doubt, it's great to come full circle,” Needham said of returning to Connecticut. “I lead a lot the way Nancy did, set really high expectations. Just because we're a different division, doesn't mean we still can't have expectations and we still can't push the kids in a positive way.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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