The First-Person Project

Michelle Mason ’05

Fleetwood, NY

Head Coach, Women’s Lacrosse, Iona College, New Rochelle

Major: Geography

I grew up in Rochester, New York. When I was a little kid I started playing sports, and they became a really big part of my life. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse throughout high school. When it came to looking at colleges, I realized I really wanted to be able to pursue playing more than one sport. My lacrosse coach, who went to Plymouth State, told me about Keene State. She thought it would be a good fit for my personality, and that I would be able to play both soccer and lacrosse. When I visited, I fell in love with the school right off the bat. That Christmas, I got a Keene State hoodie in the mail – classic gray with red and black lettering.

I just loved soccer. I was the goalie, and loved the strategy behind the game and loved having the opportunity to direct the field. And in upstate New York, lacrosse is really established. It was starting to grow in other places as I was graduating from high school. The Keene State team was only a year or two old when I was a freshman. I thought, This is great – I can be a part of a really established soccer program with a lot of tradition and a history of success, and also play on an essentially new lacrosse team and go from the ground up.

Soccer was great as a freshman because the team came to campus a week or two before the other students, so you automatically become part of a family that supports you. That was really great. Our first tournament that year was at the University of Rochester. I saw all my high school teammates there, my family, my friends all came to the tournament. The coach, Denise Lyons, gave me the nod to start and I was given the chance to prove myself and make my family and friends proud. After that I didn’t look back. There was a really neat team dynamic. We were weird and kooky and had a lot of fun. We did a lot of team building. We all lived right next door to each other. We were always competing for Little East Conference championship. It was really special to uphold that tradition and try to improve on it. I know it’s still the same today.

Lacrosse was a different situation, because the team was so new and our talent was all over the place. We had people who had played for only one year. But we had some really, really dedicated players. And we had a ton of fun. We loved being around each other so we worked really hard. My junior year, we won the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference title, which was the first time Keene State’s lacrosse team won the championship. That year we started to change the culture and say, Hey we’re not just the new guys. Let’s be more competitive.

On the academic side of things, I’d always thought I’d get into outdoor education. I envisioned myself maybe moving out west and getting involved in Outward Bound or something like that. When I started to take geography classes, I thought, This is really neat because it brings in a lot of different information from all different avenues. It’s social science, which I really like. This is kind of cheesy, but I was flying down to Florida for spring break my freshman year. I remember looking out the window and thinking, Oh, that’s the meandering stream that I just learned about in Geography. I thought, I am kind of applying what I am learning, maybe for the first time ever.

I loved teaching and mentoring and leadership. At Keene I was a tutor at the Center for Writing for three years, and when I graduated the director offered me a position there. So I stuck around, and that’s when I started coaching, assisting in both sports. I had a really neat thing going on. I got to work with professors, work with students, and get my foot in the door with coaching.

After I’d been working at Keene State for a year, the former Plymouth State coach, who’d become a mentor for me, asked me to come to Pacific University in Oregon, where she was starting a lacrosse program. I said yes, I bought a used SUV, I got ready to move across the country, and then the athletic director at Keene State asked me to stay and take over the lacrosse program. I couldn’t say no. Coaching paid only a couple thousand dollars, so I got a job with the grounds crew. I ran the main plow truck on campus and took care of the athletic fields. It was really neat to be able to care for the field that my team played on, and I took a lot of pride in it. When I started coaching we started to recruit players and to bring in some talent, and Keene State became a place where people wanted to come to play lacrosse. After two seasons, I wanted to be able to devote 100 percent of my time to one job, so I started looking around and landed a full-time job as women’s head lacrosse coach at Iona College, a Division I school.

There is nothing like a team sport. When you have a good team, regardless of winning or losing, if you’re happy with the people you are around, you won’t fall out of love with the sport, even when it gets hard. Now I’m coaching at the Division I level, and a big part of my philosophy is that you want players to be happy and you want them to build to be themselves, but also to know that there are expectations. Wins come from providing great student athlete experiences. Wins also come from recruiting the talent. Talent wants to go where they can be themselves and feel like they fit in and can be a part of something special. That’s what was going on at Keene on the two teams I was on.

This is my eighth year at Iona, and just last year, I thought, OK, I think I know what I’m doing now. You don’t realize as a player or a young coach that most of a coach’s time isn’t spent on the field. Most of your time is on the computer dealing with budgets, dealing with fundraising, dealing with travel. I have two assistants and a volunteer and there’s staff development and dealing with academics and all of that. Now that I have that administrative piece down, I am able to just enjoy being on the field and being myself.

I really value an open door coaching policy. If people have ideas or feedback, I say, come on in. I have some players I talk lax with and that leads to talking about other things. We had a rough year in 2014, then bounced back big time last year and we’re on the upswing now. The relationship is making yourself available on and off the field for players, and not making them feel like they are just there to produce statistics. It’s really easy as a coach to be so worried about winning that you start to make decisions that are based on that. You have to go with your gut. As much as people tell you they want to be the top goal scorer, they also want to be cared about and feel like they can give more than that, have more to offer, and have a voice.

What else do I do? I coach a lot of lacrosse outside of Iona. I direct a club lacrosse program called Top Side Lacrosse, which I started about four years ago. We provide opportunities for players at all levels from youth to high school ages to grow their game throughout the year. Our elite team is the Snipers, which is a try-out team that travels to tournaments comprised of players from New York City and Westchester County. Every year we’ve added a team, and close to 200 kids participate in Snipers. Our first group of players is in high school now; most of them started with us as middle schoolers. My goal is that if these girls decide to play in college, that they be great teammates who love the game.

I am also involved with a number of youth programs in Westchester County. The lacrosse community is growing in the areas surrounding Iona, so we have a wonderful opportunity to give back to the game and grow our sport. Many of my Iona players, both current and grads, coach throughout the community and with Top Side. I really feel it gives them a chance to develop their game, but more importantly learn communication skills and grow as leaders.

When I’m not on the field? I love to bike whenever possible, road or mountain. I also run with the dogs. Coaching is a lifestyle, so making time for myself is really important – although I often find myself reading a coaching/leadership book or talking lax with coaching friends. I get to travel all over the country recruiting and working camps, and enjoy seeing new places. We head out to Palm Desert, California, during January to recruit, so it’s a good gig as it is absolutely gorgeous there and it’s easy to get out for a hike. I love traveling and look forward to more opportunities to travel overseas and along the West Coast.

Soccer and lacrosse? I love the sports differently. With soccer I loved playing goalie and I loved the game. Lacrosse just has a community that is unlike anything. It’s still pretty small, although it’s growing at a crazy rate. I love the way it brings people together. It provides good opportunities for young coaches. It’s a sport that people fall in love with once they start playing it. It takes a lot of running around with a stick, catching the ball. You have to be so athletic to play it. There’s so much strategy behind the game. You can run plays like basketball; you move the ball up and down the field like soccer. As a coach, you get to call plays in from the sidelines, which you can’t do to the same degree in soccer. The engagement is cool. Calling in a scoring play with 15 seconds left? That’s something I really enjoy.

Top Side Lacrosse:

Iona College Athletics: