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The person you see jumping into the play and outrunning the rest of the Harvard women’s lacrosse team in practice has quite the resume—she is a first-team all-Ivy member and a second-team all-American.
But If you don’t see her on the field in games, don’t worry—your eyesight is fine. It’s perfectly understandable that you’re not looking for her on the sideline. After all, that’s where coaches are supposed to be.
You can’t blame the squad’s new head coach, Sarah Nelson ’94, for her occasional fieldwork. It’s a testament to the passion that drives her coaching which is so obvious to her players.
Crimson coaching legend Carole Kleinfelder retired at the end of last season, having totaled in her 24 years of coaching at Harvard 252 wins, 12 Ivy League titles, 11 NCAA tournament berths and one national championship under her belt. Nelson, 31 years old and a three-year assistant, was promoted to the top position. And as a young coach and active member of the U.S. national lacrosse team, she can still show the players a thing or two first-hand.
“It’s always a balance when you’re a young coach,” Nelson said. “I’m still a current player on the U.S. team and the international team, so I’m still playing a lot. It’s a balance between getting in there to push them and get them better. But it’s not about me, it’s about them, they have to get better on their own.”
“They don’t need me to do that anymore,” Nelson added. “It’s so fun still to be able to do that, but I try to be very conscious about that line of playing and having it be a good thing for them too, but also knowing when it’s time to back up and let them have their own team.”
But regardless of her talent and accolades, it’s her background as former Harvard student that Nelson says helps her relate to the players.
“I definitely feel like it’s an advantage,” Nelson said. “As far as knowing the workload they have, the classes they take [and] the expectations Harvard has for its students, I think I’m on the same page with that. I feel that there is a kind of Harvard personality. I can be sympathetic to that but also know how and when to push them.”
Junior attack Catherine Sproul agrees.
“I think it was very important that our new coach had also been a player here,” she said. “She understands what it’s like to be an athlete at Harvard, and she has deep ties in the Ivy League lacrosse community, so she’s an excellent resource. She also understands the legacy that Carole Kleinfelder built here. She has a lot of pride in our program and its history.”
And despite Nelson’s relative youth, her Crimson ties, experience that came from being the head coach at Vermont from 1997-2000 and her time with Kleinfelder have made up for her young age.
“You’re always the product of your own training,” Nelson said. “I think that I was brought along by her. I feel like I can bring the best of what I’ve been exposed to to my own coaching style.”
At least in the short term, it’s working.
You can bet that Nelson’s work had a least something to do with freshman Liz Gamble’s hat trick in her first collegiate contest—9-8 overtime win over Massachusetts on Saturday.
Nelson certainly chose a good time to activate the freshman. Accordingly, the young attack from Summit, N.Y. is quick to praise her new coach.
“Coming into a Division I program is always going to be daunting for a freshman, but from the beginning Sarah introduced us to our team and did everything she could to make us feel connected,” Gamble said. “She cares about us on and off the field, she takes time to get to know our families [and] she encourages us in other endeavors outside of lacrosse.
“But when we’re on the field she is 100 percent lacrosse. There’s not one thing I would want to change about her coaching style.”
“Everyone on the team loves Sarah,” Sproul said. “She keeps the game of lacrosse in perspective for us. She is competitive but still realizes that it should be about having fun and playing the game we all love.”
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sarah and would trust her with anything,” Sproul added.
What Sproul describes is this kind of relationship that Nelson seems to strive for, and it is also something she discovered long ago from her own coach, Kleinfelder.
“Beyond the x’s and o’s, I learned so much from her, as far as managing a team, motivating people, how people work—treasuring her players as people first,” Nelson said. “That’s the tone of the program I want to preserve.”
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