By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
There is a tree growing over in Sea Gull Stadium. Fans may not see it, but it’s there. With each passing season, it grows stronger and taller. It spreads its branches and roots across the Delmarva Peninsula and the Mid-Atlantic Region.
This tree sprouted 31 seasons ago in 1987. It has stood these last few decades, rich in experience, love and lessons learned. But this summer, a new branch stretched out from it all the way to York College (Pa.).
Salisbury University field hockey head coach Dawn Chamberlin is the face of the program, and she has been for those 31 seasons. That position has allowed her to create a culture and a family, but not just any family. It’s a field hockey family: ‘SUFH.’ It never leaves former players and coaches and continues with each new Sea Gull squad.
Chamberlin’s experience and imprint has made its impact on the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) beyond simply winning conference titles and national championships. Now, of the other six CAC field hockey programs, four of them have head coaches that were former players or coaches under Chamberlin.
“It’s a great tribute to what we’re doing here in our program and we just want them to be successful,” Chamberlin said.
The Four Branches
It is one thing to be at the helm of a program for 31 years. It is another to have perennial success as a national power each season with 476 total wins under her belt.
Since her first season in 1987, Chamberlin has missed the NCAA Tournament just once. At the moment, she is on a 23-season NCAA Tournament appearance streak and also has four consecutive CAC titles. This program consistency has included 20 conference titles, eight national semifinal appearances, and four national titles, with 2009 marking the most recent one.
“Having that mentality that winning year after year is something that you want to happen. It just can’t unless you make it happen. They can’t just say ‘oh I want to win,’ well you have to do something about that. I think that’s what Dawn has established within her culture at Salisbury,” University of Mary Washington Head Coach Lindsey Barbacow said.
The core of that consistency is definitely a mentality to work hard in order to win. Most people know of Chamberlin and her recent achievements. Her journey to her current position on the Eastern Shore has taken her across the country.
Collegiately, Chamberlin played field hockey at the University of Iowa where she was a member of a team that won three straight Big Ten Championships. During her final two seasons, she captained the team and received an All-Big Ten team honor. Upon her graduation, Chamberlin came to Salisbury for her master’s in education in 1987, which lined her up to take over the field hockey program that same year.
Experience is a sure thing for Chamberlin, but it is also how she affected her players that explains how the roots of her coaching tree have spread through the CAC.
The first branch extended soon after Chamberlin first took over the Sea Gulls. Wesley College field hockey Head Coach Tracey Short was a Salisbury field hockey player on Chamberlin’s first ever team. The year before Chamberlin took over, Short and the Sea Gulls achieved an undefeated season alongside a national title.
It was no easy task for anyone to take over from there, but the Sea Gulls got back to the National Semifinals the next two seasons with Chamberlin as the head coach and Short as a key player. Short achieved All-American status by her senior year.
Following her graduation, Short stayed at Salisbury as an assistant coach under Chamberlin for two seasons until she left for other positions in the region. It was soon after that Short was hired as the Wesley Wolverines head field hockey coach in 1995. Since then, Short has accumulated a 257-118 record alongside three conference titles and three NCAA appearances.
It was not until 16 years later that the second branch emerged from the tree. Barbacow came to Mary Washington to head the program in 2011. Her best season with the Eagles came in 2012 when she led them to the National Semifinals with a 20-2 record. Now she enters her seventh season coaching for the Eagles.
As an All-American forward at Salisbury, Barbacow, then named Lindsey Elliott, was part of the 2003 Salisbury national championship team. Following her graduation, Barbacow remained with Salisbury for four seasons as an assistant coach under Chamberlin in which she continued as part of two more national title teams to complete the trifecta from 2003-2005.
While her time at SU allowed her to achieve her bachelor’s in physical education and master’s in education, she also had the opportunity to see Chamberlin work first hand and learn from her mentor.
“From Dawn, came just that tenacity to want to win and to never give up. Obviously, we’re in the same conference so it’s always interesting to play her and against Salisbury. The thing I probably learned the most from Dawn was her passion for the sport and her players,” Barbacow said.
Barbacow is one coach that has seen consistent success in her own program after leaving Salisbury. That’s something she wishes to transform into contention for national titles, something that the Mary Washington players know their coach has experienced.
“[My players] want to be able to experience that. We’re just slowly breaking through and trying to establish our own traditions here with success and winning. It’s a slow process that isn’t overnight for sure. The winning tradition is something you just have to have the girls buy into,” Barbacow said.
The third branch on the tree stretches over to St. Mary’s (Md.), where former Sea Gull Jessica Lanham, then named Jessica Saey, took over the program in 2016. Lanham comes off of a 5-12 record in her first season in which the Seahawks reached the CAC Tournament.
At Salisbury, Lanham was an all-conference player her senior year and was a part of a 2013 National Championship appearance alongside two CAC titles. Following her graduation with a degree in elementary education, the Salisbury graduate stayed at SU to pursue a master’s of education.
An opening as a graduate assistant coach on the Salisbury field hockey team under Chamberlin allowed her to do this. As an assistant coach, Lanham was a part of CAC championship squads in each of her two years. However, when she achieved that master’s degree, something changed for Lanham.
“When I started applying for teaching jobs, I realized that I really loved coaching and I didn’t want to get out of it. So I started looking into opportunities to be able to coach,” Lanham said.
That opportunity opened at St. Mary’s where she now prepares for her second season leading the squad. One thing that Lanham does today in her own program is remind her players that they are out there to have fun, something that was imprinted on her from Chamberlin.
“That’s something she tries to implement in her players and remind them while playing at a very competitive and high level,” Lanham said.
Finally, the fourth branch in the tree grew just this past summer. Former All-CAC midfielder at Salisbury, Katie Fost takes over the York College program for her first season this fall. Fost played for the Sea Gulls on their 2009 National Championship squad alongside her three all-conference selections.
“I love this sport, and I love what Dawn and Salisbury field hockey stood for. I wanted to continue that same type of tradition of excellence and character-building and life-learning through the sport,” Fost said.
Since then, she has enjoyed assistant coaching opportunities at Goucher College and Bates College. As she looks to build her own program and culture at York, Fost does remember the three ‘C’s’ at Salisbury: Champions in the classroom, in the community, and on the field.
“I’ve taken that into every role I’ve been in so far. I’m continuing that on here at York. For me, the focus is to work hard out on the field so that we can become a CAC contender and contend for a CAC Championship and have our chance at the national title,” Fost said.
Four branches that mark the depth of the culture at Salisbury and the experience that Chamberlin provides to her players on and off the field. Among these Sea Gull coached teams, three currently appear in the weekly Penn Monto/NFHCA rankings with Salisbury at No. 3, Mary Washington at No. 17 and York receiving votes in the poll.
For Chamberlin, with so many strong athletes coming through Sea Gull Stadium, some of them breath coaching in their playing days.
“You get some that are great athletes but also they’re great leaders. You know they’re going to be able to go on and be really good coaches. Most of them have worked under me in some way or another, other than just playing. I hope that their love of field hockey will continue and that they’ll want to give back,” Chamberlin said.
Despite all five of these Sea Gulls facing each other each season in the CAC, one thing does not change.
“We are a family on and off the field. We’re always there for each other. That doesn’t stop once they become competitors in our conference,” Chamberlin said.
SUFH: It’s a family
Away from the success on the field, there is one thing that no one can take away from these coaches, their familial love and atmosphere. Lanham believes that Chamberlin’s best attribute may be her way of connecting with her players.
“I think the biggest thing is her interaction with her players. It wasn’t just about field hockey. She cares about her players as people and cares about them on the field and off the field. And she sets high expectations to get the best out of her players,” Lanham said.
The letters S-U-F-H mean more to these former players than just Salisbury University field hockey. It means a family away from home and a support system in the good and bad times.
With that lettering comes the consistency and success that is so strong with the field hockey program at SU. A success formed from the chemistry within this family each season on the field.
“It’s really special to me. Anyone that puts on a ‘SUFH’ jersey should feel really proud to be a part of that program, and I hope to create a program like that at St. Mary’s,” Lanham said.
That relationship goes beyond just Chamberlin. Today these coaches continue their strong ties to their teammates as they go further in life. 31 seasons offer the opportunity to expand this tree’s root system far and wide.
“I built relationships with girls on the team that continue till this day. It was really a family-like atmosphere. It’s great to continue our relationship with Dawn and to have her as a mentor, especially in the career path that I followed,” Fost said.
For many of these players, looking up to coach becomes wanting to be coach when they depart Salisbury. Now with their own programs under their wings, these fellow CAC coaches look for ways to emulate Chamberlin and what she did for them as a head coach.
It is important to remember that coaches offer immense impact on players’ lives. They can be a role model each day on and off the field since they interact with the team so often.
“Once I became an assistant, I was like ‘I want to be a coach like her and help impact young women, just lead them and let them know that they can do great things in their lives,” Lanham said.
Having a strong impact on the community is something all these former Sea Gulls keep close to the vest. The program has created well-rounded individuals off the field, which has transferred into a high rate of success on it.
By being close to her players, Chamberlin has a positive effect on them off the field. They become better people, as evidenced by the four head coaches that appear here and displayed the leadership to gain the positions that they hold today.
But other than the family aspect, it sometimes does return to field hockey. When all the former Sea Gulls are not facing each other, a field hockey tactic or two may be shared and enter the conversation.
“We’re very close and we help each other out. That’s always going to be the case. There’s no secrets in field hockey, we share drills and ideas. They know that I’m always here to help them out because obviously I’ve had a lot of experience behind me. I want them to be just as successful as they were as student-athletes here,” Chamberlin said.
Facing the Mentor
That family aspect does have to disappear for one day once a year when each of the four coaches face Chamberlin. At least for those 70 minutes on the field, something changes.
“Dawn and I have a great relationship that if I still need something I can call her. It’s not like we’re enemies, but during that 70-minute period we are enemies. We both obviously want to win,” Barbacow said.
For Chamberlin, the match-ups can be tough considering all four of these coaches have been through her program. It provides for an interesting mental battle.
“It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s a challenge. They played here and they know how I think. They know what we do on a daily basis and they know what they have to do to beat us,” Chamberlin said.
While Chamberlin may not be too stressed about the match-ups for now. Her players are at times, especially the first time they see their former coach on the other side of the sideline.
“That was definitely stressful, my stomach was in my throat. But now I’m going into year seven so it’s getting a little… actually it’s not getting any easier every time I play her. I’m not gonna lie. You want to win every game, but you definitely want to beat your alma mater or your former coach,” Barbacow said
While Barbacow and the other coaches do get past the stress, their greater focus is sometimes on impressing their four-time national championship winning mentor. When they talk to Chamberlin the next time around, some welcomed advice may be coming.
“I think that the first time [I faced her] was just super stressful, making sure that what I was doing as a head coach was something that she would respect in return. I think that’s something her and I have grown to be able to talk about,” Barbacow said.
But talking and relaying their information in order to become better coaches is important. That advice affects how these newer head coaches operate their programs and develop new cultures.
At the end of the day, these CAC field hockey players are Division III athletes. Fost puts in perspective what is important for these players to remember and for these head coaches to emphasize.
“I also want these girls to be prepared for what they’re doing later on in life. It’s just like Dawn told me, I’m not going to be a professional field hockey player. At that time I thought I was going to go and work in a hospital,” Fost said.
“They’re going to go and make a difference in the world, to be a part in the community and to be successful in the classroom is just as important as being a champion out on the field. I took that from Salisbury,” Fost continued.
Impact in the community is the focus for this family or flock of Sea Gulls as they look back. While they may have the next All-American on the field in front of them, they may also have the next leaders in the community and specific industries across the nation and the world.
Giving back to the community brings the story back 360 degrees to entering a career they are passionate for, coaching field hockey. The best way to give back is through something one loves, so they can pass on that love and use it to inspire others.
“We want them to give back. This has been a sport that has been very good to them and we want to make sure they are giving back. The best way they can give back is by teaching young girls and young women to play the sport and love the sport just as much as they have,” Chamberlin said.
No matter where Chamberlin goes and what sideline she’s on, her branches on this CAC coaching tree will remember her for this very impact she made on each of them. While they certainly do yearn for the bright lights of a national championship, the measure of a legendary coach is the way that they have impacted those around them on the team and in the community.
“I hope I can be half as good a coach as she is. She’s not just a coach, she’s family,” Lanham said.
This family is alive and well. It will continue well beyond Chamberlin’s coaching years as these CAC coaches continue the tradition.
This tree is a sturdy one that has grown larger through the last 31 seasons in Sea Gull Stadium. It will continue to prosper both with each branch extending and its stoic trunk at the center rich in experience.
It’s a testament not just to Salisbury field hockey but also the Salisbury University community as it spreads across the region, utilizing the same values that Chamberlin preaches each day.
“Sea Gull Nation is alive and well,” Fost said. “It’s really great to be a part of.”