Erica Walsh, assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team and current head women’s soccer coach at Penn State, took time out of her packed schedule to address a gathering at the Third Annual Celebration of Women’s Athletics at her – and my – alma mater, the College of William & Mary, last month.
The event aims to bring together female athletes and coaches to celebrate shared successes on and off the field, and to honor women whose personal and professional lives were shaped by their experiences in intercollegiate sports.
“We need more than annual golf tournaments to help women stay connected with the College,” said Pamela Mason, W&M’s Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance and Educational Services and the athletic department’s senior female administrator. “Men want to know how the team is doing; women want to know what they can do to help.”
And it’s not just the team captains and hall of famers, Mason said, it’s the rest of the team, too. Just being a part of the team inspires women to want to help. They want to create opportunities for women to compete at the collegiate level, to have the chance they did to discover what’s inside them that’s meant to change the world. They want to give back.
Erica Walsh is cut from that mold. John Daly, in his 25th year as head women’s soccer coach at W&M, was obviously pleased to introduce his former player. A four-year starter for the Tribe from 1993-97, Walsh was an NSCAA All-Region selection, a two-time first team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick who propelled her team to four NCAA Tournament appearances as well as two CAA regular season and two CAA league championships.
Wryly noting that Walsh and teammate Ann Cook argue about which one is his favorite, Daly said, “I’m going to keep them guessing.”
Millie West, the former tennis coach and women’s athletic director who has been a fixture in women’s sports at William & Mary for half a century – and the reason this event was initiated three years ago – opened the event by reminding us how far women’s athletics has come.
Few opportunities existed before Title IX. Little funding, coaches who scraped together money for uniforms, travel and meals, teaching and coaching so they had enough income to live on.
West skillfully guided the athletics program through the turbulent years of Title IX implementation, helping increase the program budget from $19,000 to more than $1 million during her 17-year tenure as women’s AD. Famously, she fought for every penny. When chastised for asking for a 20 percent budget increase when the men only asked for a five percent rise, West quipped in response, “Give me the men’s budget and I won’t ask for any increase.”
In spite of her impressive resume, Walsh was clearly humbled by the opportunity to keynote this event. She scanned the room at the collective decades of coaching that sat in the crowd and said, “Thank you.” She acknowledged the hardships these coaches had borne so that today she doesn’t have to.
She stands on their shoulders, and the coaches in the room were happy to hoist her.
Erica started coaching young – so young, in fact, that she had to have an athletic trainer travel with the team because she was not old enough to rent the team van. Walsh served six collegiate programs, three as a head coach before heading to Penn State because she wanted to “have a chance at a national championship,” she said. So, assistant coach on the world stage is not enough.
Erica allowed us to cheer again by playing video of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s inspiring run to the 2011 Women’s World Cup final. Erica was in charge of that squad’s defense, an area John Daly said she masterfully organized even as a college player. But Walsh came to talk about more than the USWNT. We got a glimpse of her growing as coach and mentor by being mentored.
She shared a bold example: legendary and recently departed Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Walsh said that as a collegiate coach, it was recruiting that she found hardest and most demanding. So much time devoted to it. So much pressure to get the best players. She wanted to do it the right way. As a new coach at Penn State, she went to the master recruiter, Paterno, for some advice about how to “hard-sell” a recruit. She had a young woman coming in and she hadn’t been able to crack her. She already was pretty sure she would lose her. Could he help? Then she sat back to watch Paterno work his “hard sell” on the prospect.
He didn’t. He was cordial, told stories, laughed with the player and her family, introduced them to the secretary and the cleaning lady who happened by. Erica thought, when is the pitch coming? It didn’t. But by the end the family was smiling, and the mother was hugging Erica.
“Hard sell” wasn’t how you helped players choose your team. They needed to see you cared about people. That you would care about them. She realized this was what she saw in Daly at William & Mary. Perhaps that’s what drew her to coaching, though Daly takes no credit for this.
“I really don’t know how I contributed to her success in coaching,” he later said by email, “if indeed I contributed at all! Being the cerebral player she was, she was destined for greatness if she chose to get into coaching.”
Yet he saw that greatness in her and helped her discover it. That’s great coaching.
As head coach at Penn State since 2007, Walsh has accrued a 76-30-5 record, a better-than-70-percent winning percentage and a 43-7-1 mark in the Big Ten Conference. She enjoyed one of the best seasons of her coaching career in 2011 as the team went 10-1-0 in the Big Ten for their 14th straight regular season conference title.
But she didn’t come to W&M’s Women’s Athletics Celebration event to talk about her record. She came to highlight what her assistant coach and friend Ann Cook is doing in Nicaragua with Soccer Without Borders. She and other women’s soccer athletes, including some PSU players, are using soccer to open up the world to young girls in impoverished situations.
“Everywhere there are boys playing with soccer balls,” Walsh said. “We are bringing the game to the girls who need to know they are welcome on the field.”
Opening a door of hope to help them see what they can do.
Walsh congratulated the award recipients of the event: Jo Ousterhout, a field hockey and lacrosse athlete at W&M in the 1970s who has founded a philanthropic travel company which supports women’s businesses in economically disenfranchised countries, and Lauren Kaplan McKetta, a 2005 graduate, local school psychologist and dedicated volunteer in the Williamsburg area community who has raised funds for bone marrow transplant research at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center in memory of her sister, Ali.
The second part of Walsh’s message was simple and heartfelt. She said she was privileged to walk where she did on the shoulders of the efforts of those who had gone before her. She wanted to do it the right way, standing tall, giving back to the game that had given her so much. You got the idea that she was not finished yet.
Five current William & Mary soccer players looked on in rapt attention as Erica spoke. These capable young women were definitely tuned in.