Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Saying Goodbye

The single most competitive person that TigerBlog has ever met has coached her final game at Princeton University.

It's hard for TigerBlog to think about Princeton women's soccer without Julie Shackford, just as it was hard once for him to imagine Princeton men's basketball without Pete Carril or Princeton men's lacrosse without Bill Tierney.

For 20 years, she was the face of the program. And what a run she had with the Tigers.

Her record at Princeton was 203-115-29, meaning that she averaged more than 10 wins per season at a program that averaged 7.7 in the 15 years before her arrival. She went 42-21-4 at Carnegie Mellon before coming to Princeton; Carnegie Mellon didn't have a program before she started one.

To put that in historical context, she is one of only five coaches in Ivy League history - three men's, two women's - to reach 200 wins. 

She led Princeton to six Ivy League championships and eight NCAA tournament appearances. No other Ivy League coach has ever taken a women's soccer team to the NCAA tournament more times.

Her 2004 season was her best, as she took Princeton to the NCAA Final Four, something no other Ivy women's soccer coach has ever done. She was the Division I coach of the year that year as well.

In 2012 she led Princeton to another 7-0-0 league record, making her one of two coaches to have done so twice. She was the regional coach of the year in 2012 - her third such honor - after Princeton won an away NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history, at West Virginia.

Her 2004 Final Four run featured four NCAA wins, all at home. The quarterfinal game was against Washington on a very cold night, when 2,504 fans packed into antiquated Lourie-Love Field.

Today, Princeton soccer plays on beautiful Myslik Field at Roberts Stadium. It's part of Shackford's legacy, the momentum for the new facility having grown from that Final Four run.

When it came to coaching at Princeton, she was demanding. Strong-willed. Fierce. Intense.

TB once heard her scold her team for playing soft, yelling this at them: "You're playing like girls out there. You need to be women."

The second he heard her say that, TB was immediately struck by it, by how perfectly it sums her up.  Don't play like men. Play like women. Strong women. Because women can do anything, on their terms.

And an army of women who came through Princeton benefited. And as a result, they stayed loyal. Very loyal.

Year after year they came back, to watch, to support the current team, to continue to share their lives with each other and with the woman who had coached them.

They were there Saturday night, when Shackford - they all call her "Shacks" - finally had coached her last game. And now they were at a reception for her in the Frick chemistry building, there to show one more time just how much she meant to every one of them.

To be a Division I head coach for 20 years is not easy. You think you know the toll it takes, but you don't - not unless you see it up close, first hand.

TigerBlog knows. He's had great relationships with so many Princeton coaches, but he'll never be as close to any of them as he was to Julie Shackford. He helped her raise her kids - Kayleigh, Cameron and Keegan - from the time they were in diapers.

He was with her long enough to see what her life as the Princeton women's soccer coach was really, truly like. What the wins were like. How long it took her to get past each and every loss.

Why didn't she recruit this kid? Why didn't she play that kid more, the other kid less?

When you're the head coach, it falls to you to make the biggest decisions about the program. It's not easy. And then your record is so public. Either you won, or you lost.

It wears you out. It's why coaches get burned out.

If you go to a game and the team you're rooting for loses, it stinks a little. Then you go home and go about your day and hey, there are other things that take your attention.

When you're the head coach? No. It consumes you. Overwhelms you. The highs, and the lows. TigerBlog saw it from Julie Shackford so many times, for so many years.

To be able to do that for 20 years? It's way, way more impressive than you realize.

How did she do that? Like TB said, she is the single most competitive person he has ever met. She competed with him in anything she could - ping pong, beach soccer, the jumbles, crossword puzzles song lyrics, basketball in the street, anything. TB can't even write those without thinking back to them and laughing.

Now she is leaving, moving to Virginia and getting married. It's time for the next chapter in her life. TB is happy for his former partner.

She's earned it.

She spent 20 years here living a tough life, one that plays with every emotion a person has. One that requires you to constantly be accountable, often for things out of your control, like a shot that hits a crossbar or a ref who calls a penalty kick or a poorly timed pulled hamstring - or any number of other things.

You're responsible for some pretty formative years for your players, and it's impossible to underestimate how important that relationship can be.

It makes for sleepless nights. It makes for twisted emotions.

It takes a special person to do it.

And that's what Julie Shackford is.

And now that special person is moving on.

Like TB said, she's earned it - and he's happy for her. 

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