2003-10-31 / Sports
Nancy Williams reaches another milestone
Nancy Williams, the longtime Shore Regional High School girls field hockey coach, still remembers her first win.
"It was a 3-0 victory over Ocean Township," she said without hesitation the other night. "You always remember your first win."
And Williams remembers hers as if it just happened yesterday. Only it wasn’t yesterday. It was in 1970, her first season at Shore Regional. Now, some 34 seasons and more than 600 wins later, Nancy Williams is still guiding the Blue Devils and doing what she loves most.
She’s also still winning. In fact, she’s the all-time winningest high school field hockey coach in the nation, coming into this week with a remarkable 605-50-49 career record and a .924 winning percentage. She began the 2003 season with 591 wins and became the first coach ever to record 600 wins with a 3-0 victory at Keyport in the Blue Devils’ ninth game.
But those numbers only begin to scratch the surface. Under Williams, Shore Regional has won a division title in each of the last 33 years.
"Every year except my first," Williams, the only varsity coach the Blue Devils have ever had, said. "We went 8-2-1 that year, but then from the next year on we’ve won our division every year."
They’ve also won nine Shore Conference crowns, 21 sectional titles, and 10 state championships. And with a 14-1 record this year — they were 14-0 before a 3-1 upset loss to St. John Vianney last Saturday — the Blue Devils appear to be well on their way to another banner year.
Williams certainly could’ve never imagined such gaudy numbers when she first began coaching in 1970 and beat Ocean Township in that first game. She didn’t even think she’d still be coaching 34 seasons later.
"I actually thought I would coach about 10 years," said Williams, who’s also coached the girls softball team since 1979, and was head girls basketball coach for 13 years and an assistant the last five seasons. "But then 10 years turned to 20, and then 20 years turned to 30. I don’t know how that happened. It still doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing it that long.
"There’s two parts to it," she added. "One, I love the game. I love the game of hockey. It’s a great game. And, two, I love the kids. I’m fortunate for the opportunity to work with such great kids. I think that’s the best part of coaching, all the kids I’ve met. I was only 21, just out of college, when I started coaching. Some of the players I had in my early years, now I’m coaching their kids."
And it’s the kids, all the kids, who keep Williams going.
"Every time I think about retiring, some little kid comes around who looks like she’s going to be a good player and I get attached. I want to see her through the program. Then she has a little sister who comes around and I want to see her go through. That’s what happens. You get attached to a certain group of kids and it’s hard to leave."
Instead, her players leave, but sometimes some of them come back and coach with her as assistants. Others have gone on to become field hockey coaches at other schools, some of whom have even gone up against their former coach at Shore Regional.
"She’s a great coach and she knows the game of field hockey inside out," said Red Bank Catholic field hockey coach Lisa Caprioni, a 1979 graduate of Shore Regional who went on to play at Virginia Tech. She started the program at Red Bank 10 years ago and says she owes her love of the sport all to Williams.
"The first time I picked up a field hockey stick was when I was a freshman at Shore and I absolutely fell in love with the sport. She’s the reason why, too. She’s still very helpful to me. Whenever I have a problem, she’s quick to offer a solution or some drills."
Their two teams could even have met in the Shore Conference championship, which was scheduled for yesterday.
"At one time we were in the same division and we played in ’93 and ’94. I never beat her, though. Actually, I don’t think too many people have beaten her, so I don’t feel bad saying that," Caprioni said.
Williams’ influence is even more prevalent at Long Branch High School, where three of her former players are on the coaching staff of the field hockey team.
Kelly Manna, who played for Shore Regional from 1991-94 and won three straight state titles, was the head coach at Long Branch the last two years, but became an assistant this season, while her former assistant, Heather Ilvento, took over as head coach. Ilvento also played from ’91-94, while another former Blue Devil, Kim Landolfi, a 1992 Shore Regional grad, is also an assistant at Long Branch.
"All three of us played for her," said Manna, whose Shore Regional teams were 69-1-1. "She influenced all of us and now we want to give back to other kids. She was very unique and taught us lessons of life through sports."
They even find themselves still emulating their former coach on the sidelines.
"I sound just like her sometimes with some of the things I say," Manna laughed. "All three of us do. It’s scary. Sometimes we all say the same thing at the same time."
They’re not alone. Meghan Harmon, the coach at Middletown North, not only played for Williams but coached under her as an assistant for six years.
"I was a soccer player and didn’t play field hockey until my senior year," said Harmon, a 1986 Shore grad who also coached four years at Long Branch before Manna took over.
"I wouldn’t have a career now if I didn’t play for her and learned the basics that first year. A lot of the team-unity things I do with my team now I learned from her. She always gets the most out of her players."
Harmon’s Middletown North team was scheduled to play Williams and Shore Regional in the Shore Conference semifinals on Tuesday in another teacher vs. student confrontation.
"I lost to her in last year’s semis," Harmon noted. But the results almost don’t matter to Williams.
"It’s so much fun to see kids you used to coach now getting into coaching themselves," she said.
"They’re so young and enthusiastic, like I was when I started, and now I watch them make an impact on kids. The way society is today, to have a positive impact on kids is so important."
But with Williams, it’s always been about the kids, ever since she started coaching.
"She was a tremendous influence on my life," New Egypt High coach Patti Nicholson, who was a sophomore on Williams’ first team, said. "She taught me to fight for what’s fair and stand up for what you believe is right. Back when I played for her, Title IX was still a couple of years away.So we had old uniforms and we had to practice late at night because we couldn’t have the gym. She used to fight for that. She was really before her time even back then.
"My daughter played field hockey at Allentown and was a high school All-American and is now playing as a senior at the University of Virginia," Nicholson added. "But she takes all of that for granted. I saw someone fight for all that."
"Her first priority is definitely her team," Harmon agreed. "She always goes all out for her kids."
And it’s why over the years kids in the middle schools and even younger couldn’t wait until they got to Shore Regional to play field hockey for Williams.
"When I was at Shore, you wanted to play field hockey and you wanted to play for her," Caprioni said.
"Kids loved to play for her," Harmon added. "Not only for what they learned on the field, but what they took off the field and learned about discipline, consistency and teamwork."
Not to mention a thing or two about winning. Williams did plenty of that, although she admits there were a few victories that do stand out from the rest.
"I think the first time we won the state title in ’79, that was great. That’s something you dream about." Williams said. "And I remember the ’86 team that went undefeated and went to the state championship game, but after only 10 minutes we were losing 2-0. We tied it with a minute left and then won it in overtime. That was an unbelievable game."
The Blue Devils would go on to win state crowns in 1992, ’93, ’94, ’96, ’98, ’99, lose 1-0 in the 2001 state final, and then win again last year.
"Last year’s championship was great," Williams said. "We only had five seniors and no one at the beginning of the season, including myself, thought we were capable of winning the state championship. So that was very special."
Williams’ 457th career win in 1997 also sticks out. That’s the one that allowed her to surpass retired coach Linda Alimi of rival West Essex High School as the nation’s all-time winningest coach.
And, of course, there was the 600th victory this season. That one was special, too.
"But those 600 wins represents all the years of work from all the people who made it possible," she said. "It was a combination of all the kids, parents and my assistant coaches over the years. I wouldn’t have one win without the assistants I’ve had. They are the unsung heroes.
"I’ve had the opportunity to meet some pretty fantastic people. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would have retired by now."
Retire? Could Nancy Williams actually walk away someday?
"I’m actually thinking about it," she admitted. "I don’t know when. I just think one day I’ll wake up and I’ll know it. I’m not gonna stay if I feel it’s time to get out, even if there’s some young kids coming up who are going to be pretty good.
"The important thing is to make sure someone takes over who has the same vision and enthusiasm to continue the program."
Who knows, it may even be one of her former players whom she influenced years ago. But there will always be only one Nancy Williams, and whenever that day comes where she wakes up and knows it’s time to leave, she will undoubtedly leave a legacy that will never be matched.