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    Saturday, December 03, 2022

    Comfort, trust and empowerment at Waterford High

    Waterford – Inasmuch as the following is true — this country works best when we include everyone of all colors, religions, ancestries and orientations to learn with, play with and learn about each other — this is also true: Sometimes, we seek comfort in the more familiar.

    And that’s best illustrated by the unspoken gravity of constant effort, of showing up every day, comfortable enough and empowered enough to be yourself. This happens at Waterford High now, a bunch of girls who show up to play volleyball for their all-female coaching staff, whose presence not only makes their kids stronger, but changes the way the world perceives that strength.

    Introducing head coach Amanda Tourjee and assistants Vanessa Kobyluck and Jaclyn Bono. Three young professional women, Lancer volleyball alums and monuments to the educational value of the freedom to be yourself.

    “They understand us,” senior Marina Colonis said Wednesday night, after Waterford defeated Ledyard. “ Honestly, they're such great coaches. They know what it's like because they played here at our level. It’s so much easier to open up to them. They understand our struggles and they know how to help us fix things.”

    They’re not all that much older than their players, either. Bono graduated in 2009. Tourjee in 2014. Kobyluck in 2016. It’s almost a big sister thing. And if you’d seen the kids the other night play with joy – utter joy – you’d know that athletic director Chris Landry hit one into the upper deck here.

    “I can see it in our players,” Landry said. “The idea that they are playing for strong females and strong female voices allows them to be more direct and tell us how they feel. They’re playing for role models every single day.”

    Tourjee, who spent some time as an assistant coach in the program, pays her bills as a police officer in Old Saybrook. Bono (Waterford High) and Kobyluck (Marine Science Magnet) are teachers. People-oriented professions.

    “An all-female coaching staff makes the environment more trustworthy, more comforting,” Bono said. “They're able to express themselves more freely to us. I know as just a teacher in the building, a lot of them stop by my classroom, even if they just had a bad day.

    “That goes beyond both teaching and coaching. It's hard to think back to when I was 16 and playing. Maybe I would have played better or opened up a little more to a coaching staff like this one. I feel like I probably would have.”

    Again: Back to the concept of fun. All the other inherent byproducts from playing sports – notably pursuing the same goals with people of varying backgrounds and work ethics – happen almost seamlessly when the baseline is fun, empowering and comfortable. It makes the best teams. The best workplaces.

    “We as coaches are all very good friends. So there was no get-to-know-each-other phase,” Tourjee said. “We are very close. And the girls love feeding off the energy they see from the friendship within the coaching staff. They give it right back.

    “We've all been in their shoes. We are all alumni and played in this program. We know exactly what they're going through, what they're expecting and what they want. They’re open to speaking with us about how they feel. That communication allows us to succeed in a comfortable team atmosphere.”

    Tourjee played for likely the single most important figure in the history of the program, late coach Josh Eudy, who died of colon and liver cancer in 2013. Eudy’s influence still has its fastball, all the way to Wednesday night, with the annual game played in his memory. Eudy is a reminder of the two most unstoppable dramas — life and death — and how at least one night a year, Eudy's death reminds his former players to maintain a new respect for life.

    And yet not even Eudy could reach his players in the same way Tourjee, Bono and Kobyluck reach theirs.

    “Josh Eudy was great,” Tourjee said. “He had a goofy side and we could talk about funny, silly things. But we didn't have the female outlet that the girls here have now. It’s not one female here. It’s three. And most time they want to talk to all three of us at once. It shows that they really trust us.”

    Landry also has an all-female girls’ basketball staff. Kaitlyn Sullivan, Bern Macca and Jill Long have all been there and done that. They can get to places with their kids that are more important than ever now in a time when mental health and empowerment issues have the same place at the table as the vagaries of a 1-3-1 zone.

    Same with volleyball.

    “As a younger coaching staff, we bond really well with the girls,” Kobyluck said. “They just look like they’re having more fun. That just makes it a way better experience than it has been in the past.

    “I’m a teacher now, but I was a student not that long ago. I know what it's like being in the classroom as a student. The same with volleyball. We know what the stresses are like and what they should be thinking about on the court.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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