LYNDONVILLE — Intercollegiate athletic competition at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic this fall. But that hasn’t kept several Hornet student athletes from finding competition on the soccer pitch, as they have swapped their cleats for whistles, clipboards and coaching hats.
Senior men’s basketball and men’s tennis player Neal Mulligan is in his second season as the head varsity soccer coach at Christ Covenant School in Marshfield, while six members of the Hornet women’s soccer team are coaching various elementary school teams within the Kingdom East Unified Union School District.
Mulligan is in his second season at the helm at Christ Covenant, his alma mater. He was a multi-sport athlete at Christ Covenant and had assisted his varsity basketball coach and father, Joe Mulligan, his first year following graduation. When the varsity soccer position opened up following the 2018 season, Mulligan inquired about the job.
“I have always loved soccer and been interested in getting into coaching,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be possible when I was in college, but fortunately, these last two fall semesters my schedule has been much better suited to be able to do this. I didn’t think I might ever get a better opportunity to get into coaching, so I talked to the school about wanting to coach the team and was able to get the position.”
A President’s List student at NVU-Lyndon, Mulligan is successfully balancing his coaching responsibilities with his academic work, competing in two intercollegiate varsity sports, and working part-time as a pest management professional for Presidential Pest Control of Berlin, N.H.
His passion for coaching helps motivates him to persevere through the hectic schedule. “It is certainly not easy in the fall months, but the key is planning each day and being prepared. I have to know when I have time to study and do homework, when I need to prepare or have practices, and to manage my time efficiently. I pretty much don’t get much free time in September or October, but it is worth it because I love coaching.”
This year his squad is 3-1 overall and 1-1 against Division IV competition. The Saints are on track to post the first winning season since the soccer program was restarted in 2015. They are coming off of a 3-3-2 season a year ago and are seeking their first postseason berth in several seasons. Remarkably, all 17 high school boys in the small Christian school play on the soccer team.
Mulligan credits his experiences as a Lyndon student-athlete as helping him in his coaching role. “I learned a lot at Lyndon about how to structure practices in a way to prepare my players for games. It is important to focus on certain aspects that you think are the most important to allow your team to have success.
“I also learned from my coaches about how to try to motivate players and emphasize important aspects like hard work, teamwork, respect, and the desire to improve continually as opposed to just Xs and Os. Both things are important, but it is key to find the right balance between them.”
Mulligan cites his father, Joe, and Hornet men’s basketball coach David Pasiak as being significant influences on his coaching style. “Certainly my dad, who was my basketball coach in high school, has had a big impact on my approach to coaching high schoolers. Also, my college basketball coach, Dave Pasiak has had an impact on me, such as how I prepare for practices and emphasize development and growth, individually and collectively.”
Although he’s quick to credit those influences, Mulligan doesn’t try to pattern himself after other coaches and is quick to give credit to his players. ” I like to think that mostly I have my own coaching style and philosophy. We play a little differently than most high school teams in the area or than we ever have in the past, and it seems to have worked well so far. I am blessed to have a number of super dedicated, hard working players, who love the game and are extremely coachable. We are a very small school, but we have some fantastic soccer players in our program.”
While Mulligan is working with high school age athletes at the climax of their careers, Hornet women’s soccer players Rachel Palladino (Manlius, N.Y.), Madison Reardon Lake Clear, N.Y.), Yasmin Molina (Morristown, N.J.), Marin Fowler Plainfield), Raquel Madeja (Claremont, N.H.), and Kelsey Holland (Pembroke, N.H.) are working with elementary school age players who are in the early stages of learning the game.
Holland touched on how she came into her position. “I first learned about the position from the athletic director for the Kingdom East School District, Kelly Walsh. I met Kelly earlier this year through my fieldwork placement at a local daycare in Lyndon. She reached out to me a few months ago and asked if myself and other girls on the women’s team would be interested in coaching or reffing for the fall.”
Palladino and Reardon are coaching the third through fifth grade team at Lyndon Town School. For Palladino, it’s a chance to help pass on her passion for the sport to a new group of up and coming players. “I find soccer fun and I like being able to help kids find a love for the game like my coaches did for me.”
Reardon agrees. “I love soccer and my passion for the game is very strong. I love being able to demonstrate my love and passion with all of our athletes.”
Molina and Fowler are also coaching a 3-5-grade team, theirs out of Concord School. Molina’s satisfaction comes from the development that she sees in her players. “I love seeing them get better every day.”
Fowler understands how the Hornets become role models for their teams. “It’s cool to be influencing the next generation of soccer players.”
Madeja and Holland are working with even younger players. They lead a combined team of K-2 grade student-athletes from Lyndon Town School and Burke Town School. Holland has appreciated working with young children who may be experiencing the sport for the first time. “Coaching K-2 has been a fun experience and I love being able to watch them have a good time while playing with their friends. They are learning the fundamentals about soccer in a fun way and hopefully will continue to use these skills in the future.”
For the six Hornet women precautions put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a fall season that has included practice, but no games against outside competition. While they are hopeful to be able to compete in the spring, coaching the youth teams has helped to fill their competitive void.
Holland is on track to graduate with a degree in applied psychology and human services this December. Juniors Madeja and Fowler and sophomores Reardon, Palladino, and Molina are expected to form the nucleus of the Hornet team next season. For Holland, her experience this fall has whetted her appetite for coaching. “This was a great opportunity to get my foot in the door with coaching, as I hope to continue coaching in the future.”
Meanwhile, Mulligan expects to graduate from NVU in the spring with degrees in business administration and accounting. He intends to keep coaching the Saints for the foreseeable future.
“I absolutely love it and want to stay in coaching as much as I can,” he said.