Coach Mary Stetson leads through empowerment
BRISTOL — Kayla Bessette used to think there was no way other people could love and appreciate Mary Stetson the way she does.
“And then (earlier this month) at our Mt. Abe Varsity Field Hockey Banquet, the seniors attempted to talk about Mary and everything she has taught them and given them,” Bessette told the Independent last week. “Through the tears the point was driven home that it’s not just me. It’s all of her players. Mary Stetson emulates all things ‘Eagle Nation.’”
Mary Stetson began teaching at Mount Abraham Union High School in 1982 and has coached field hockey there for the past 30 years. The program she built at the school is legendary, and for the past eight years she has served as the New England/New Jersey representative on the National Federation of High School Field Hockey Rules Committee.
Looked at in one way, the proof of Stetson’s success is easy to produce: Three weeks ago the Eagle field hockey team won its fourth state championship in a row. Look at it from a bit more distance and you could say that three weeks ago the Mount Abe field hockey program pulled off its second four-peat in 20 years (and the first four-peat was actually a five-peat).
But to the women who play for her, who draw from her wisdom, who trust in her authority, who through her eyes begin to see — and become — better versions of themselves and then get launched into the world with strength and confidence, Mary Stetson’s impact extends far beyond the win-loss columns. And it’s something people often speak of with awe.
“She found me in the hallways at high school when she knew I needed to be in class, and she looked me dead in the eyes and told me to get my s*** together because my team needed me,” said Bessette, who graduated from Mount Abe in 2007. “She gave me tough love, understanding and support.”
Bessette responded by giving Stetson her all.
“I have Cystic Fibrosis, and on my sick days, when taking care of myself felt like a burden, I did it so I could play hockey,” she said. “When I was in the hospital, I snuck out to play indoor games with my IV tucked under my shirt.”
Bessette still feels Stetson’s influence today.
“She expects greatness and if you have it in you she’ll find it. Once you leave Mount Abraham, that doesn’t fade. It’s something you carry with you forever. If I could impact just one person/athlete’s life the way she has mine and so many others’, that would feel pretty amazing.”
A trio of young women who played on this year’s championship team — seniors Natalie Chase, Molly Laurent and Abby Reen — praised Stetson in emails to the Independent.
“She has watched me over the years and I have always wanted to make her proud,” said Chase, who has known Stetson since third grade and has played Mount Abe field hockey since sixth grade.
Chase recalled her first game with the varsity squad.
At the end of the first quarter “I asked her if there was anything I needed to do differently or something I might need to change based on this team,” Chase said. Stetson, who could tell Chase was nervous, “grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘No, you’re great, just be the field hockey player I know you are.’”
And that’s all that was needed.
“This gave me courage in what I was doing and I knew that she would be there to give me support,” Chase said.
Laurent spoke of Stetson’s impact on her high school career, not just as a player but also as a person.
“Every practice produced a memory or lesson I will carry with me always,” Laurent said. “In games, when I was feeling tired or frustrated with myself, I would hear her from the sidelines saying ‘we need you’ or ‘you’re not done.’ These small words of encouragement meant so much more to me than anyone would expect. I can take this idea of always pushing myself harder, trying my best, into everything I do…. I am the person I am today because of her.”
Reen reflected on the last four years with her coach.
“She takes time every single day to tell us how much she truly believes in our capabilities,” Reen said. “She makes very specific practice plans to prepare for our next game and keeps us in shape during off periods by creating fun and engaging workouts that are actually enjoyable to do…. She has most certainly made me a stronger young woman and these years of playing Eagle hockey will be some of the best years of my life because of the program she has built up.”
Julianna Doherty is the mother of another Eagle senior, Txuxa Konczal.
“(Stetson) is focused on making our girls great people,” she said. “Eagle Hockey is the only girls program at Mt. Abe that is coached exclusively by women. It is coached by athletes who are all moms, and all fully dedicated to Eagle Hockey. They coach field hockey, but they really coach the girls to be confident, powerful women who work to their full potential every day.”
Meg Quiet, who attended Mount Abe in the early 2000s and returned in 2016 to work there as an athletic trainer, has known Stetson for nearly 30 years. Quiet knew her first as the mom of her friends Lindy and Jen, then as a P.E. teacher, now as a colleague.
“It was fun to be in her P.E. class,” Quiet said. “She would instruct a skill, then let us practice it. I won’t say we ‘played,’ because that isn’t quite the right word, but it was a time for us to move our bodies and enjoy our classmates, and she never tried to inhibit that.”
Working with Stetson has given Quiet a new perspective on her former teacher.
“In high school, I knew she was a coach, and the field hockey players always had positive things to say about her, but now I can see how impactful she can be to these girls,” Quiet said. “She fosters an amazing sense of family and unity and team spirit. I’m always telling Jen I wish I had played field hockey instead of soccer,” she added with a laugh.
Stetson communicates really well, Quiet said, and she’s so knowledgeable that you can always trust that she’s doing something for a reason.
“I remember this super difficult conversation we had this spring regarding an injury,” she said. “I knew there would be disappointment. I can still see the conversation happening. She was supportive of me and of the student athlete and it felt like it was possible for her to be on both of our sides. At the end, all three of us breathed a sigh of relief.”
Stetson’s commitment to her students doesn’t stop when the final bell rings each day, or when field hockey season is over.
“Last spring on a Saturday we had a home softball game,” Quiet said. “We were delayed because of thunder and lightning and a torrential downpour. When the rain stopped we had a tremendous amount of work to do to get the field ready to play again.”
Then Stetson showed up.
“We didn’t call her or anything, she just knew. She just came to school and said, ‘How can I help?’ That willingness to drop everything and come help us, that says a lot. She knows what people need even before they know it themselves.”
Tricia Vincent attended Mount Abe in the early 1990s.
“Stets was probably my toughest coach,” Vincent said. “She expected that you were going to give your best and held you accountable when you didn’t. Those are the life lessons you need as a teenager. I remember her preseason conditioning practices were tough, but after you made it through those practices you had a sense of pride and self-confidence.”
When Vincent’s daughter started getting involved in sports, Vincent started coaching — and she has carried forward her positive memories from playing field hockey under Mary Stetson.
“As a coach you must find your own coaching style, but I always found myself thinking back to which coaches I learned the most from and Stets was always on the top of the list.”
For the past three seasons Vincent has helped Stetson coach Eagle field hockey and continues to learn from her.
Stetson (and her predecessor Lucy Pellegrini) “foster an environment where women empower each other, where you are more excited to see your teammate succeed than you are about yourself,” Vincent wrote on Facebook. “Greatness is expected and pulled out of you because your coaches and teammates know you are capable of amazing things.”
Sometimes, too, it’s just the little things, said Stetson’s husband, Jeff. Like on game days, when Stetson puts a sticky note on each player’s locker.
“Just a sentence or two, something inspirational or motivational,” he said. “She’s done this throughout her coaching career.”
Mount Abe Athletic Director Devin Wendel has known Stetson since he was in middle school, when he was her student.
“She’s always been a mentor of mine,” he said. “When I graduated (from college) and saw a job opening for athletic director in Montpelier, I prepped for the interview with Jeff and Mary. I asked for 30 minutes. They gave me three hours, on a Saturday, going over the ins and outs.”
Now that they’re colleagues at Mount Abe, Wendel has sought Stetson’s counsel as a teacher, a coach, an athletic director and a parent, he said.
“Because she’s been all of those. Not many people have that kind of wide angle lens.”
At the same time, Stetson is extraordinarily humble.
“She doesn’t want attention, she wants the limelight for the kids and those around her,” he said. “She puts the team forward and the kids out front.”
Mount Abe Principal Shannon Warden agreed.
“She has no idea that I’m talking to you,” Warden told the Independent when she suggested we do this story. “Because she would tell me not to do it.”
Warden remembered congratulating Stetson after her team won its latest state championship.
“It’s not me,” Stetson told Warden. “You should congratulate them, not me.”
Stetson has a quiet way about her and a personality that commands respect, Warden said.
“She can go up to any student who is misbehaving and have a conversation, and she just has this touch with kids. They listen, they respond well, and lot of it is because of her communication style. She talks to kids and adults on their level, sets high expectations and then backs all that up with so much encouragement and praise, that even if you’re not doing that well, you’re doing well on something, and she’s going to find that and highlight that for you.”
Jen Stetson Myers was in seventh grade, helping out as a ball girl, when her mom’s Eagle field hockey team won its first state championship.
“I remember looking on from the sideline, thinking ‘I want to do this, too. I want to play for my mom.’”
In the summer of 2002, Myers was looking forward to entering high school and joining her sister, 11th-grader Lindy, on the team.
“I told my mom, ‘I’m going to play for you, and we’re going to win four championships in a row.’” Myers said. “My mom was like, ‘OK, Jen.’”
Stetson also informed her youngest daughter that if she was thinking about playing varsity she ought to know that there was no room on the offense for her. She would have to play defense.
That was fine, Myers said. “And I told her, ‘We’re going to win four championships in a row.’”
“OK, Jen,” Stetson said. “It’s good to have goals…”
Eagle field hockey went on to win four state championships in a row. The year after Myers graduated, they added a fifth for good measure.
Myers went off to college, played field hockey there, then returned to Bristol. As a member of Stetson’s coaching staff, Myers has helped Eagle field hockey win four more state championships in a row.
Myers’s story is nothing short of epic. But it almost didn’t happen.
“When Lindy and I were coming of age to play field hockey, my mom sat us down and said, ‘If you want me to be done with this because it might affect your experience of it, I’ll step away.’”
“No way,” her daughters said. “We want to play for YOU.”
So Stetson stayed on. And she stayed on after Myers graduated from Mount Abe.
“Many coaches will kind of step away when their kids are done,” Myers said. “But she stayed. She’s so passionate. As much as I would have liked to have seen her more while I was playing in college, I’m grateful she kept doing this.”
Now, as coaches, Stetson and Myers focus not only on strategies and drills but also on the characteristics they want each player to leave the program with.
“I’m lucky I get to call her mom,” Myers said. “And that my kids get to call her their grandmother.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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