As W.T. Woodson’s 2012 field hockey season drew to a close, Meg Jarrell heaved a requisite sigh of relief in the wake of her first season as a head coach. A former Lake Braddock captain and three-time Patriot District champion, Jarrell couldn’t feel too satisfied with her new team’s 5-9-2 record, but she was at least proud to have led a group of players in a role she’d never taken on before.
Still, the coaching commitment, combined with the English classes she taught at Annandale High, was a bit overwhelming for the 22-year-old fresh out of Davidson College. If she was to do it again this fall, she wanted backup.
When she met longtime area coach Erin Deer last winter at Rampage indoor field hockey tryouts, Jarrell thought she might have found just the help she needed. Despite their age difference, the two clicked right away as they guided the U16 team in the ensuing weeks, during which Jarrell repeatedly begged Deer to help her coach Woodson’s varsity team in the fall. Already busy raising three kids, Deer seemed to have enough on her plate as it was, so Jarrell let the issue go for a while.
During class one day last spring, Jarrell glanced down to read a text message on her phone. It was Deer. She had changed her mind about coaching in the fall.
“I screamed,” Jarrell recalled. “My kids thought it was a bug or a snake or something.”
It turns out Deer had an epiphany during a speech she was giving as the keynote speaker for the Fairfax County Women in Sports Awards. Though actively involved in club coaching, she hadn’t coached at the high school level since the 1990’s, when she coached for a few years at Woodson after graduating from the University of Iowa. While reading the bios of the women who were juggling family, jobs and coaching, she wondered why she couldn’t take on more herself.
“I was standing there saying, ‘What are you doing for girls athletics?’” said Deer, who took about an eight-year hiatus from coaching to raise her family. “And then I thought, ‘Well what am I doing?’ So I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’”
Now, as their 2013 season winds down, Jarrell wonders whether she could have made it through another full season coaching by herself.
“It was really kind of out of the blue, and it has really been an absolute life saver because the second year is harder,” Jarrell said. “The grace period is over. Having her as backup and learning from her is huge.”
Deer might be a little older, but the enthusiasm she shares with Jarrell on the sideline make them look like two peas in a pod. Like Jarrell, Deer isn’t afraid to strap it on and mix it up with her players in practice. She and Jarrell also play together in an adult hockey league, further strengthening a bond that has developed in less than a year’s time.
Deer’s experience can also provide a healthy equilibrium alongside Jarrell’s youth. Jarrell relates to her players so well that she can simply call them up and talk about whatever’s on her mind, but there are times when she feels hesitant about switching from the friendly sister figure to the firm disciplinarian.
“They feel like my peers,” said Jarrell, who tallied four goals and one assist during her senior year at Davidson in 2011. “I think of them as my little sisters, so it’s hard to sometimes be a hardass, which is where Erin has really been helpful. I’ll look at her and be like, ‘They can run today, right?‘ And she’ll be like, ‘Yeah.’ So having that backup is nice. Even on the sideline I’ll come up and ask her, ‘I’m not crazy if I do this, am I?’ And she’ll do the same thing.”
Though their discrepancy in age and experience might render Jarrell’s role as head coach a bit odd, Deer insists she holds no qualms about it.
“No, it’s great! I love it,” said Deer, a former NCAA champion at Iowa and National Team reserve. “Meg’s great. She’s organized and she knows what she’s doing. She handles all aspects, and I get to just come in and help her coach. And then I get to walk off without any of the other headaches.”
The Cavaliers carried a 3-8 mark into Thursday’s regular season finale against Fairfax, but watching them play gives the sense that they might be better than their record indicates. Jarrell points to her team’s margins of defeat as evidence that they have improved since last year. Whereas the 2012 campaign featured a few blowouts, 2013 has seen the Cavaliers lose three overtime games, only falling by more than one goal in a 2-0 defeat against defending region finalist South County and in a 5-1 loss against defending region champion Westfield.
Woodson players have benefitted from their coaches’ expertise on different areas of the field.
“Erin’s got more experience on defense, and Coach Meg playing offense really helps with the whole team dynamic,” senior midfielder Logan Darr said. “Helping each section of players on defense and offense combines to really help the team.”
You might think that Deer’s time away from the game might make her the one showing surprise at the improved quality of youth field hockey these days. But Jarrell expresses plenty of surprise of her own, insisting that the proliferation of year-round training programs has raised the level of high school field hockey in the area even since she suited up for Lake Braddock in 2007.
Competing against so many quality opponents makes life difficult for Woodson, still the most recent Northern Region program to win a state championship (2003). But Jarrell thinks that her players’ toughness, combined with their increasing dedication to the sport, has them moving in the right direction.
“It wears on you losing all those close games, but they all have extremely huge hearts on and off the field,” Jarrell said. “We talk about having the heart and the mental game of an athlete, and they definitely have that.”