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Female Athletics Coaches at The Hill Through the Years

 During the 1991-92 school year, Margie (Ritchie) Neiswender was named head coach of the varsity tennis team, becoming the first woman to be a head varsity coach at Hill. It was a historic moment for the School, several years before 89 young women set foot on campus in the fall of 1998. Naturally, as the School’s female student population grew, so too did the number of women leading Hill’s sports teams.

For the 2020-21 school year, nine women will be either a Head or Associate Head coach of a Hill varsity sports team. The following feature offers a glimpse at some of the many women who have impacted Hill Athletics throughout the past 30 years.

Neiswender had coached in the tennis program for four years prior to becoming the head varsity coach, first spending two years as the intramural tennis coach and then leading the JV team for two seasons.

“Dave Mercer was the Director of Athletics when I became head JV coach and he was the one who initially encouraged me to look into the position,” Neiswender recalled. “He gave me unwavering support and always believed I could do the job. He and Pete Maynard were instrumental in helping me during those early years.”

When the head varsity job opened unexpectedly during the 1991-92 school year, there was no hesitation in promoting Neiswender from JV coach to varsity coach.

“I seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” she said. “Dave (Mercer) was my biggest fan and used sports as a metaphor for life. He reminded me that anything could be accomplished through hard work, perseverance, and confidence – even being the first woman to coach at Hill.”

Her first season did not come without its challenges.

“I can’t say that first year was easy, personally, but we had a talented team and finished with a 9-2 record. I learned a lot that year,” Neiswender said.

Throughout the next decade, many of Neiswender’s teams found success. The 1995 team earned a spot in the Trophy Room, and the 2002 team finished 12-3 and won the New England Mid-Atlantic

(NEMA) Tournament, a prestigious tournament featuring many of the region’s top prep tennis programs.

When the School created the Afternoon Arts program during the 2002-03 school year, Neiswender was ready to devote her afternoons to “developing and nurturing varsity musicians and artists” and stepped away from the tennis program having accumulated a career record of 85 wins and 55 losses.

More women have coached boys’ teams at The Hill throughout the years: Virginia Yinger, Sarah O’Dell, and Chanel Erasmus have coached the boys’ squash team; Sarah Retrum and Amy Agnew led the swimming and diving program; and Meg (Crocco) Watson was an assistant varsity boys’ lacrosse coach. Neiswender, however, will always be remembered as the trailblazing first female head coach - and first woman to coach a boys’ team - at The Hill.

The Early Years

During the 1998-99 school year, three women served as head varsity coaches: Amanda Leahy led the girls’ soccer and girls’ lacrosse teams, Jen (Sparacio) Lebo was head field hockey coach, and Neiswender took the helm of the girls’ tennis team. Leahy, the first woman to serve as an assistant athletics director at The Hill, coached both teams for two seasons before departing The Hill in 2000, and Neiswender led the girls’ tennis team for its first two seasons before turning the program over to David Allain.

Lebo was the head field hockey coach for four seasons, from 1998 until 2001. After leading the inaugural 1998 team to a respectable record of 5-9-2 and improving by one win the following season, Lebo had built a powerful program by the fall of 2000. The 2000-01 field hockey team posted an overall record of 14-2, coming within one game of becoming Hill’s first girls’ team to win the Mid-Atlantic Prep League championship.

One year later, the field hockey team finished with a perfect 16-0-1 record and won the MAPL title, allowing just five goals over the course of the historic season.

“I will never forget that 2001 season, not just because of all we accomplished but because of who that team was,” Lebo recalled. “Goals were set long before the season started – I might say the day we lost the MAPL in 2000. What made that team so special was truly and simply because every single girl on the team was committed to giving her best and to doing everything that was asked of her. I remember one practice that fall, we finished a drill and Lauren Nocella ’02 said ‘Sorry, coach, but we are doing that again. Some of us did not give 100 percent.’ We did a lot of team bonding exercises with a focus on mental toughness and the girls motivated each other on off days. After our one tie, against Holy Name, they sat in silence on the way home. They were so angry at themselves. They knew what they wanted and were so determined to never quit. That fall will always be one of my favorite memories from Hill and from coaching.”

Lebo and her then soon-to-be husband, Scott, departed The Hill in 2002, leaving the program in the hands of Meg (Crocco) Watson. Watson, who played Division I field hockey at Georgetown University, continued to build upon Lebo’s success and turned Hill field hockey into one of the region’s dominant prep programs. In her first season, Watson guided the team to its second-consecutive MAPL title, the first of five league championships Watson’s teams won in her nine-year tenure.

For her career as Hill’s head coach, Watson’s overall record stands at 103-28-8; in her final three seasons, the team’s cumulative record was 41-3-1. The early standard of success Lebo and Watson established has been carried on by Julie deLaurentis and current head coach Jen Weissbach. As a program, Hill has won 10 MAPL titles and boasts an all-time record of 244-98-17. Several players have moved on to play for elite college programs, and three alumnae – Colleen Gulick ’09 (University of Maryland), Annie McLaughlin ’11, and Kate Ferrara ’12 (both Princeton) – have won Division I National Championships.

As the School began to increase its female faculty, several women in addition to Lebo and Watson found success as head coaches.

In 2002, Carter Abbott was named head girls’ lacrosse coach, succeeding Kathy Malone. Malone had been a member of Yale University’s inaugural women’s lacrosse team (as well as being on Yale’s first field hockey team) and guided the girls’ lacrosse team to its first season with a winning record in the spring of 2002.

Abbott arrived with an impressive lacrosse resume. A four-year starter at Princeton, Abbott was a two-time All-American and she was named the Ivy League Player of the Year as a senior. Although she only stayed at The Hill for three years, Abbott left a deep imprint on the girls’ lacrosse program, posting a career record of 37-14-1 and guiding the 2005 team to the MAPL Championship.

Another collegiate All-American, Sarah Retrum, also joined The Hill faculty in the fall of 2002. A decorated swimmer at Division III power Kenyon College, Retrum was the Swimming and Diving Program Director for two years at The Hill, 2004-05 and 2005-06. In both seasons, the girls’ team made the Trophy Room.

One of the longest-tenured female coaches at The Hill, Lindsey Mulhern, arrived at The Hill in 2004 and replaced Abbott as head girls’ lacrosse coach in 2005. A collegiate player at James Madison University, Mulhern led the 2006 Hill girls’ lacrosse team to its second-consecutive MAPL championship. She remained head coach for eight seasons before heading to Canterbury School with her husband, Matt, a 1995 Canterbury graduate who was appointed Canterbury’s director of admission in 2013.

Increasing Numbers

Ten years after becoming a coeducational institution, just five Hill teams had a female head coach. In the ensuing decade, that number has nearly doubled. Currently, nine women serve as head or associate head coaches for nine athletics programs at Hill:

  • Amy Agnew P’11: Director of Aquatics and Head Swimming Coach
  • Beth Allain P’18 ’23: Girls’ Golf
  • Chanel Erasmus: Squash Director
  • Marcela “Mo” Gaitán: Girls’ Lacrosse
  • Jen Kokoska: Diving
  • Becca Shipper ’14: Softball
  • Jen Weissbach: Field Hockey and Girls’ Basketball
  • Deanna Mayza ’13: Associate Girls’ Basketball Head Coach
  • Laura McConney: Associate Girls’ Ice Hockey Head Coach

Alumnae Coaches

Becca Shipper ’14 is the second alumna to return to The Hill as a head varsity coach. Shannon (Summers) Zwoyer ’05 was the first alumna to lead a varsity program at The Hill, serving as head girls’ soccer coach from 2013 until 2015 and head girls’ lacrosse coach from 2014 until 2018. As a student-athlete at The Hill, Zwoyer excelled in soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse. She continued playing soccer and lacrosse at Franklin and Marshall College, earning All-Conference honors in soccer and winning two national championships in lacrosse. On the lacrosse field, Zwoyer was a two-time All-American and she was named the 2009 NCAA Division III “Midfielder of the Year.”

As a student at Hill, Shipper was the captain of the field hockey and softball teams, helping lead the 2013 field hockey team to the MAPL title.

A standout softball player, Shipper won a NCAA Division I national championship with the University of Florida in 2015 before transferring to the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, where she completed her collegiate career.

In the spring of 2020, Deanna Mayza ’13 was named Associate Head Coach for the girls’ basketball team. Mayza is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the girls’ soccer and girls’ basketball programs, and she was the 2012 Pottstown Mercury “Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year.” After graduating from Hill, Mayza had an outstanding career at the University of Hartford and she played one year of professional basketball in Europe. She returned to Hill in 2019 and works in the athletics department.

Numerous alumnae have been assistant coaches at The Hill. The first was Courtney (Steltz) Neese ’00, who was the first alumna to return to The Hill as an employee in 2004. Neese, who currently is an Athey Family Master of English, was an assistant girls’ soccer coach from 2004 until 2017.

Additional alumnae who have coached at Hill include Rachel Guthridge ’05 (cross country, track and field), Allie DiRico ’06 (ice hockey, lacrosse), Sarah Brandt ’06 (basketball), Kylie Francis ’07 (water polo), Ali (Jacobs) Greenly ’07 (basketball, softball), and Ellen Dvorak ’11 (basketball).

Assistant Coaches

While much of the spotlight falls on head coaches, assistant coaches play a vital role in a team’s functionality. The Hill is fortunate to have several assistant coaches who were highly accomplished athletes during their competitive careers, offering a wealth of experience and a diverse perspective to their respective teams as well as to the athletics program as a whole.

There is one assistant who has been a member of The Hill Athletics program since 1992; a quiet, behind-the-scenes presence who plays a large role in ensuring the Athletics Department’s daily operations run smoothly.

“Great teams have great teammates, and there is no one better than Marian Threadgill,” said Director of Athletics and Co-Curricular Activities Seth Eilberg P’22 ’23. “Every day for more than 25 years she has come in early and stayed as late as needed to ensure that our coaches and student-athletes have all the support they need to have a special experience. A friend to all, Marian has built lasting friendships throughout our leagues, state organization, and of course here at Hill. Even when she’s busy scheduling buses and officials, updating schedules, booking hotels, and the like, Marian is never too busy to catch up with a colleague or lend an ear to a student who needs to talk. She always makes time for others, and her behind-the-scenes support is a huge part of why Hill athletics is able to fulfill our mission to provide the opportunity for students to compete at the highest level of independent school sports.”

The proud mother of two Hill alumni, Chris ’02 and Patrick ’05, Threadgill steadfastly embodies the School’s core values. Often working long hours throughout the school year, Threadgill’s calm demeanor and attention to minutiae ensures that the many moving parts of game operations are in sync, a task that is not always easy given the possibility of a visiting team or an official arriving late, inclement weather causing last-minute schedule adjustments,

or another of the unpredictable curveballs that can arise in athletics operations.

In an era when lengthy employment tenures are becoming much less common, the School greatly appreciates Threadgill’s dedication and the outstanding work she has done in the Athletics Department for more than a quarter-century.