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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Creating the incredible

Field hockey coach Steve Jennings is one win away from 300

While the untrained eye might look at Steve Jennings and see a soul-patched man who escaped  Seattle’s grunge scene and stumbled into AU’s athletics office, that’s just the untrained eye. Instead, Jennings is American University’s most decorated coach, two games away from his 300th win with the field hockey program, and he’s not looking to stop anytime soon. 

Jennings is currently in his twenty-fifth season as the field hockey team’s head coach. The team is 2-0 in league play this season.

Jennings began his field hockey career in a gym class just up the red line in Bethesda, Maryland. He ranked field hockey as his second choice sport to play in the class, behind soccer, but he was assigned it anyway. The next thing he knew, he got a call from a local field hockey coach. 

“He would not let me get off the phone until I agreed to go to a practice,” Jennings said. “The next week I fell in with a training group, and the rest is history.” That history includes a trip to the Olympics, upsets against former NCAA champions, and an induction into the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame.

After a few years of living the high life as a professional field hockey athlete, which included a stint playing for a club in the Netherlands, Jennings turned to coaching. 

He began his coaching career at American as an assistant, and later coached in Ohio before returning to the University as head coach in 1999. Since then, Jennings has seen mounting success with the program, leading the team to a .647 winning percentage and 11 NCAA tournament appearances. Perhaps even more impressive, since Jennings became head coach, the Eagles have won over 8 out of every 10 of their Patriot League games, and have won the league outright 12 times. 

Jennings broke down how he has been able to maintain a high level of success across his tenure into three things. 

First is investing in his players: “you have to invest in people … if they don’t believe or feel that you truly, truly care about them as a human being first … I don’t know if they’re willing to go all out for you,” Jennings said. 

Second is getting his athletes to take risks: “You have to develop a faith in them for themselves and for what the team can do. And then they’ll be willing to have failure,” Jennings said. “That gets them out of their comfort zone, and that can create the incredible.” 

The last is establishing a culture where Jennings said, “the team is willing to do anything for each other.”  

Graduate student Megan Hoffman, who is in her fifth season playing under Jennings, echoed the story told by her coach. Hoffman described Jennings as “one of the best coaches [she’s] ever had,” who is “tough on [the team] when he needs to be, but whose door is always open.” 

Another key aspect of Jennings’ coaching is his commitment to his athletes’ academic performance. The American field hockey team has been top five in the nation for grade point average for 11 seasons under Jennings, and just last year 17 members of the team were placed onto the Patriot League honor roll. 

Jennings acknowledges the lack of money in the sport after college, which is part of why he pushes his athletes so hard to get good grades. To help his athletes achieve this level of academic excellence, Jennings talks to all of his players individually about their classes and goals and encourages them to take advantage of the tutors and resources that American offers. It has gotten to a point where the team is “really excited when the GPAs come out,” because “they want to know how they did against everybody.”

Despite approaching a feat that will place him in a small circle of elite field hockey coaches, Jennings does not care about his 300th win any more than he cared about his 15th or his 134th. 

“I care about having a championship year within [our] league, and going to the NCAA tournament, and trying to be ranked,” Jennings said. Those things are way more important to Jennings than any counting stat. 

Throughout his interview with The Eagle, Jennings kept returning to the core reason he coaches: the people, “I didn’t get into [field hockey] for a [win] total, I got into it for people, and trying to pursue excellence.” 

Jennings emphasizes his process, which includes being there for his players and fostering a positive and competitive environment. “Once you do that well, the wins are a byproduct.” 

Kim Underwood is a high school field hockey coach who has sent three of her athletes, including her daughter, Bryn, to American to be coached by Jennings. “He loves the game,” she said, “he loves to compete and he’s such a strategist but you can tell ultimately, it’s really the people that matter.”

Jennings currently has 299 wins and will have a chance to reach 300 in the coming weeks. In his time at American, Jennings has influenced hundreds of athletes and legitimized a program that historically struggled. 

Jennings said, “It’s pretty amazing how different my life would be if I didn’t get forced into playing my second choice in high school gym class.”

This article was edited by Penelope Jennings, Delaney Hoke and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.

sports@theeagleonline.com


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