ANA SANTOS / THE EAGLE
The year was 1999 and Steve Jennings was beginning his first season as head coach of the AU field hockey team. He arrived at practice and gave the squad a rudimentary drill — he would pass a player the ball and they’d shoot. The simple task proved to be anything but easy and every shot flew wide of the near post.
Jennings brought the team together and explained that the goal was to aim for the far post. A flurry of shots missed, each skimming the near post. He once again gathered the players and demonstrated the proper form and technique necessary to fix the problem. Somehow, the problem still persisted. Jennings was forced to make an ultimatum: If a player missed, she would have to do five pushups.
Like clockwork, balls started rattling the back of the cage.
“Do you guys realize the problem?” he asked. “You’re teaching me how to coach you. And right now you just taught me that the only way I can get you to do something properly is a threat. I don’t want to do that.”
Since that practice 11 years ago, Jennings has taken AU to the heights of Division-I field hockey. The Eagles have won seven consecutive Patriot League Championships dating back to 2003 and have qualified for six NCAA Tournaments in that span. They are now ranked 14th in the nation and are on an eight-game winning streak
Jennings has experienced his fair share of success as well, having won Patriot League Coach of the Year honors each of the past five seasons. His secret to success: a personable coaching style that works with each player on an individual level.
“I try to let each player have their own strengths and not try to curb that,” Jennings said.
Jennings first joined the AU coaching staff in 1993 as an assistant coach to current Ohio State head coach Anne Wilkinson. During his three years there, Jennings helped Wilkinson guide the Eagles to their first national ranking and a cumulative record of 35-18. In 1996, he followed her to Ohio State. When Jennings returned as head coach three years later, he was determined to bring AU field hockey to national relevance.
In the competitive world of college athletics, many coaches scream at athletes and run seemingly pointless drills. Jennings aims for the opposite. He doesn’t just teach his players what to do, but he also tries to show them why.
“If I electro-shock people, I can get them to all run faster that day. So I get them to do it, but they do it against their will. It’s a short fix,” he explained. “I want people to want to be great. I want them to want to get better. Not because if they don’t here are these consequences.”
While this philosophy has worked wonders for the program, many players take months and months to adjust. Players like senior Christine Fingerhuth are so used to fueling themselves with the screams of their coaches that Jennings’ coolness was at first unnerving.
“What I was used to in Chile was everyone just yelling at me and cursing at me, so [Jennings’ style] is completely different,” Fingerhuth said. “Steve is very psychological and he wants to see what works for you. I like it a lot better.”
One of Jennings’ strengths is his ability to nurture individual talent. In his 11-year tenure at American, Jennings has coached seven All-Americans, 17 All-Region selections and 24 all-conference honorees. This year alone, nine different Eagles have been recognized by the Patriot League for their outstanding weekly performances.
On a team level, Jennings preaches an attacking style of hockey in which AU dictates the level of play. He wants his players to understand their roles on the team but also have enough knowledge of other roles to be able to fill in if necessary. More than anything, Jennings wants his team to play with excitement.
“We want to be fast, fit and play with good skill,” he stressed. “I’d rather win a game 5-2 than a 1-0 slogger where we have three shots but play strong defense. I’ll take that to win a national championship, but I’d rather play a game where people walk away saying, ‘You know what, those kids are amazing athletes and that was a great game.’ ”
This mentality is what has led AU to be ranked as high as fourth in the nation in 2004, and it’s what motivates players like senior Kirstin Gebhart to buy into the system.
“Steve is somebody who really empowers you and isn’t one who gives you the answers, ever,” she said. “He wants you to figure it out for yourself. He’s really trying to turn you into a smart player.”
Jennings’ players are not just smarter on the turf, but smarter in the classroom as well. AU finished last season with a 3.50 team GPA, good enough for third in the nation. The team has ranked in the top five academically in five of the last seven years.
“We try to build the team as a family and try to do a lot to have support groups around [the players] so that they feel like this is something they really have to treasure, defend and honor in a lot of ways,” he explained.
As of Sunday, the team is ranked 14th in the nation and has won eight matches in a row. On Sunday, AU beat No. 4 ranked Princeton University. The Eagles have outscored opponents 17-2 over the last three games.
AU field hockey has come a long way since Jennings took over and its players are continuing to develop. The Eagles still have a long way to go this season, but one thing is for certain: They have no problem hitting the far post.
Tom Schad is athletics communications assistant for the AU Athletics Department.