Time Is Right For New Notre Dame Soccer Coach Theresa Romagnolo

Matt Cashore

Theresa Romagnolo has brought a new intensity to the Fighting Irish program.

When you have two young daughters, one 2 years old and another barely 5 weeks old, the day begins long before you walk out the door in the morning for work.

And long before first-year Notre Dame women's soccer coach Theresa Romagnolo starts to think about a practice plan, the strengths and weaknesses of her next opponent, or even the magnitude of the job she now holds, more pressing matters occupy her routine.

"Make sure I don't hold anyone after I've showered," Romagnolo joked of one item on the checklist.

When time is of the essence, practical trumps profound.

"I think everyone who has kids has dealt with [the reality that] there's times where it is just chaos," Romagnolo continued. "And you just kind of put your head down and get to work and figure out how to do it."

Joe Jasper

Theresa Romagnolo has been a hit with the Notre Dame players, many of whom had played only for male coaches.

Success sometimes demands performance at imperfect times and inconvenient moments, which goes a long way toward explaining why Giovanna Romagnolo, born July 17, will tell people she is from South Bend just as soon as she gets around to speaking. It's a place Theresa had never visited at the time she found out she was pregnant with her second daughter and a place she never imagined she would be coaching when Giovanna entered the world. Offered a chance to take charge of one of college soccer's premier programs when former coach Randy Waldrum left for the professional game, an opportunity still afforded to too few women, how could she say no?

So she and her husband, Alex Romagnolo, put their heads down and figured out how to do it.

Doing so with two small children adds an extra degree of difficulty to what could be the sequel to one of the stories of the season in 2013.

At this time a year ago, Amanda Cromwell was barely beyond needing name tags to identify her players at UCLA. Despite a stellar soccer résumé, both as a player at the University of Virginia and with the U.S. national team, and as a head coach at UCF, she had few ties to the West Coast when UCLA picked her to run another of college soccer's flagship programs. A few months later, she led the Bruins on a memorable run through three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament that ended with the program's first title.

In the process, Cromwell became just the second female head coach to win a Division I national championship and the first who also played Division I soccer.

"I don't know if there is enough support that it's worth it," Cromwell said during last year's College Cup of the challenges facing female coaches. "You see a lot of women, especially coaches that were my age, they start having kids, they get to a certain age and then they get out of the game. The family time is just too much of a sacrifice for them to be in the game. So it's tough because there are so many good female coaches out there that either don't stay in it or don't get the opportunities, maybe. It's still very much a male-dominated coaching profession."

Widely regarded as the deepest and most competitive conference in the sport, the ACC that Romagnolo enters after three seasons at Dartmouth has just four female head coaches. And that is double the number it had a season ago because Romagnolo replaced Waldrum as Notre Dame's first female coach, and Louisville and longtime coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes entered the league. It's the same picture in the pro game, where Seattle Reign's Laura Harvey is the lone female coach among nine National Women's Soccer League franchises.

According to a study from the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota and the Alliance of Women Coaches that looked at 888 head coaches across all sports at the 76 schools that were in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC as of the 2012-13 academic year, soccer ranked far behind team sports such as basketball, softball and volleyball in terms of the percentage of teams coached by women. The data make clear that there are issues with soccer's culture that go well beyond women balancing career and family -- a balance women in other sports face -- but that challenge certainly compounds the larger problem of keeping women in the game at the highest levels.

For Theresa and Alex, a former college and professional soccer player who works as a development director for Grassroot Soccer, moving to a new part of the country to take a job with considerably greater expectations attached to it than one in the Ivy League was a lot to process, what with one young child, Sierra, and another on the way.

But what, they wondered, if the same job were offered in a few years when one or both of the kids had started school and had friends? Would it be any easier to uproot the family then?

"We both had hesitation because, to be honest, the timing isn't great, isn't perfect," Alex said. "We had a lot of conversations about that and talked to a lot of people we trust -- other coaches in the industry, things like that -- to get their feedback. At the end of the day, though, I think what it came down to is Theresa's always wanted to be somewhere where she can be successful at the top level, and these type of opportunities don't come around too often, if ever, for some coaches. At the end of the day, we said the timing is probably never going to be perfect."

It's about what you do with the time you have. Or as is Theresa's preference for pressuring opponents when they have the ball, the time you don't have.

Like Cromwell at UCLA, Theresa inherited not a moribund program to rebuild, but arguably an even trickier challenge. Notre Dame is the only program other than Anson Dorrance's great dynasty at North Carolina to win at least three national championships. Two of those came on Waldrum's watch, the most recent just four years ago. There were some growing pains a season ago as a young roster moved to the rugged ACC, but the Fighting Irish still made it to the third round of the NCAA tournament. Like UCLA a season ago, there is championship-caliber talent in South Bend, from under-20 World Cup starters Cari Roccaro and Katie Naughton to reigning ACC freshman of the year Morgan Andrews and a large, highly rated freshman class.

She's stepped into the role amazingly. I like playing under her -- I love playing under her. It does not matter to anyone on the team that she's a female or a male. She does what she does, and she's a great coach. So yeah, it was different at first, but it doesn't make a difference now. She's a great coach, and we're lucky to have her.
Notre Dame senior Sammy Scofield on playing for Theresa Romagnolo

The new coach isn't trying to fix something that isn't broken. She's just trying to speed it up a little.

"It was a more kind of in-your-face philosophy," senior Sammy Scofield said. "We're going to make sure that every time we step on the field, it's going to be Notre Dame soccer, and we're going to dictate the flow of it, the speed of it, everything that we're going to do. Last year -- I mean, soccer is soccer, but definitely Coach's philosophy is stronger and it's more up in your face."

The timing of the school's lengthy search to fill the position meant Romagnolo was officially hired just three days before the first spring exhibition game against Marquette. In Romagnolo's succinct style so reminiscent of her former boss Paul Ratcliffe at Stanford, she said the game in Milwaukee gave her plenty of examples she could show the players for how she didn't want to play.

It wouldn't be fair to the assistants who filled in on an interim basis during the coaching search, including current assistant Dawn Siergiej, to say the team was adrift when the new coach arrived, but it's equally true that any interim coaching staff has limits to what it can implement philosophically or stylistically.

That clearly changed in the wake of the Marquette game.

"First off, she's competitive," Andrews said. "That's what our team needed. We need to play in practice like it's a game and every day is a tryout and we have to work our butts off. Honestly, we are fighting for our spots every single day. It's nice to have that. It's nice to have that competitive aspect of the game, but also, she respects us and we respect her. I think that's a huge part of a team."

Competitive is the word most people seem to come around to at some point when talking about Theresa. Alex calls her the most competitive person he's ever met, be it coaching in Division I or playing him in one-on-one soccer. She said motherhood has tempered the extremes of that competitiveness, a sentiment with which Alex concurred. But that didn't mean she was going to miss the start of Notre Dame's on-field preseason work on Aug. 6.

"I was trying to get her to take more time the whole time," Alex said. "To be honest, she was actually on email probably a couple of days after the baby was born. She didn't go back into the office for two weeks, just about two weeks, and I was pleading with her to take more time. But that's kind of her personality. She wants to be successful and wants to put in the time to be successful. I knew I could try as much as I could, but it probably wasn't going to help too much."

Although Theresa isn't likely to loudly embrace the role of trendsetter, any more than she will embrace the label of championship contender, as both are things out of her day-to-day control, she is already effecting change. Like many of her peers, Scofield had played almost exclusively for male coaches growing up. During the weeks of uncertainty as the team waited for a new coach, she just assumed it would be another man.

"Some of us were shocked, to be honest," Scofield said of learning the new coach was a woman not far removed from her playing days at the University of Washington and with the WUSA's San Jose CyberRays. "But it hasn't made a difference at all. She's stepped into the role amazingly. I like playing under her -- I love playing under her. It does not matter to anyone on the team that she's a female or a male. She does what she does, and she's a great coach. So yeah, it was different at first, but it doesn't make a difference now. She's a great coach, and we're lucky to have her."

Even if the timing wasn't perfect.

"Right now, it's all in on soccer when I'm here, and then it's all in with family when I'm there," Romagnolo said of the field and home, respectively.

At least for the most part.

"The nice thing is when they go to bed," she continued, "I can turn on the video and break down film."

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