COACH OF THE YEAR: Leone Leads Two-Year Turnaround

So much for a sophomore slump.

In just his second season at the helm of the Harvard women’s soccer team, head coach Ray Leone guided the Crimson to a 10-3-5 record, which earned his squad its first Ivy League championship since 1999 and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.

The third Harvard coach in as many years when he took the job before the 2007 season, Leone has brought stability and a standard of excellence to the program.

“It was nice to have consistency,” co-captain Nicole Rhodes said. “Coming into this year we knew what he expected of us…I think that was something no one on the team had had before.”

Since Leone’s arrival, the Crimson has gone 20-9-6 overall and has earned 10 All-Ivy selections, including its second and third conference Rookies of the Year in a row.

After six successful seasons at Arizona State, Leone faced an immediate challenge in taking over a Harvard squad fresh off a 3-13-1 season in which it had been shut out nine times.

He focused on the Crimson’s courageous performance in its 2006 regular-season finale against then-Ivy League champion Columbia.

“I said, ‘That’s a team with a lot of character,’” Leone said. “To have nothing on the line other than their own personal pride…we just built upon that. They had the foundation already in them.”

Blessed with a roster full of potential, he proceeded to give his underclassmen plenty of opportunities to thrive, and the Crimson responded by finishing with 10 wins in its best performance since 2001.

With its stellar freshmen and sophomores one year wiser and its seniors ready to take charge, Harvard had high hopes heading into the 2008 season. It did not disappoint, improving its league record to 5-1-1 and entering the NCAA tournament on an eight-game unbeaten streak.

The turnaround was partially a product of Leone’s ability to take full advantage of his situation.

“We’ve had great recruits the last couple years, and our senior class was the first core group to stick together in a while, so I think having that experience mixed with the young talent was great for us,” Rhodes said. “That was definitely key.”

While the numbers bear witness to his coaching acumen—Leone is 24th among active Division I coaches with over 200 wins in his 17 years of experience—his influence is most apparent in the intangibles.

His team has displayed class, competitive fire, and resilience—all the hallmarks of a well-coached group. And most importantly, his players simply love playing for him.

“His dedication to the team is unmatched,” junior Christina Hagner said. “He is thinking about [Harvard women’s soccer] 24/7. He’s always thinking about us, the players, about what he can do for us.”

“He’s so passionate about what he does and about our team, and he puts so much time into it,” Rhodes added. “His excitement kind of spreads to the team.”

Leone drew praise for his tireless efforts compiling extensive scouting reports and editing game film, as well as his motivational techniques.

“You need that special ingredient to make everything click, and I think what Ray does a really good job at is spending the time to figure out our strategy against specific teams,” Hagner said. “Ray just loves being a coach…I think that’s really what’s been driving our success.”

With the help of his wife Tracey, a coaching assistant, and assistant coach Katie Shields, Leone has created a family environment that facilitates camaraderie and a passion for the game.

“We couldn’t have done it without him or [his wife] or Shields,” Rhodes said. “You can really tell they love what they do. It’s definitely been said more than once among the players that we wanted to win for them as well.”

And with Leone at the helm, the Crimson appears to be well on its way to establishing a long-lasting legacy in the years to come.

“Shields and Ray do an excellent job of recruiting,” Hagner said. “We have tons of players looking at our team, and they have really done a great job of getting the word out there.”

No matter what, one can be sure that success will be earned the Leone way—with hard work and an open mind.

“We just believe that there’s greatness in every player, every person, and it’s our job to uncover that,” Leone said.

—Staff writer Dennis J. Zheng can be reached at dzheng@college.harvard.edu.

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