Head Booter

In her new job, soccer coach Stephanie Erickson goes on the attack.

Grinning, the new head coach of women’s soccer, 29-year-old Stephanie Erickson, says she has friends “who would call me a typical forward: we cherry-pick, we want it [the soccer ball] to our feet, we are divas. Naturally, I don’t agree.” But Erickson’s approach to the game is clearly that of an attacker—offense, aggression, scoring. “I like to see the game played in the attacking one-third of the field,” she declares. “You have to take risks to score goals. Defense is an incredibly important key to success. But playing defensively often turns into playing not to lose. That’s not risky, and you have to take risks to win.”

Erickson will be on the sidelines for her first Harvard match this fall. She succeeds Tim Wheaton, who left coaching to become assistant director of athletics at Harvard after leading the women booters for 18 seasons (1987-2004) and compiling a 167-94-27 record. Wheaton’s teams garnered four Ivy League championships and made eight appearances in the NCAA tournament, reaching the quarterfinals in 1997 before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina. His 1999 team went 14-2-1 and had a top-10 national ranking; that banner year may augur well for the future, since 1999 was the season when Erickson first coached at Harvard, as Wheaton’s assistant.

Erickson is a dynamic woman with Midwestern roots who has headed soccer balls and teams on both coasts. Born in Wayzata, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, she started playing the game at age five as one of two girls on a boys’ team. “The girls always had to play defense,” she recalls. “I remember asking, ‘Why don’t we get to score goals?’” Erickson wasn’t born to play back; “I’m just a goal scorer,” she explains. “That’s my instinct.”

After a high-school career that included a state championship for the Wayzata High School team and standout play on two club sides, she enrolled at Northwestern. She matriculated in the inaugural year (1994-95) of Northwestern’s women’s soccer program with an athletic scholarship; by her junior year, the side had won an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament under head coach Marcia McDermott. Erickson still holds all the Northwestern women’s scoring records except the single-season goals-scored mark, which fell only last year.

When Erickson graduated in 1998, McDermott encouraged her to try coaching, having noticed her superior understanding of the game and leadership traits as an undergraduate assistant at soccer camps. Erickson took an unpaid coaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, and a year later, hopped coasts to assist Wheaton. In 2000 she bounced back to California as a full-time assistant at Stanford.

Two years later, she had an unusual opportunity thrust upon her when head coach Andy Nelson suddenly resigned just before the start of the season. Erickson and fellow assistant coach Paul Sapsford took over as interim head coaches and led Stanford to a phenomenal year. The Cardinal ranked first in the nation for eight weeks that fall, went undefeated in the Pac-10 Conference, and broke a bushel of records while rolling to a 21-2 season. Stanford lost in the NCAA quarterfinals in a shootout after a game that ended in a tie. “We have a little problem about that 21-2 record,” Erickson says. “In the regular season, a game that ends in a tie is recorded as a tie. They do it differently in the NCAAs, with the game ending in a shootout. The only team that beat us in the regular season was North Carolina, 1-0.”

Stanford eventually chose Paul Ratliffe as its next head coach. Although Erickson interviewed for the job, she believes that Stanford “made a great hire—someone who has proven himself over a long time, not just a season.”

She stayed on as Ratliffe’s assistant, but soon became pregnant with her daughter Xiah, who is now nearing her second birthday. Erickson is a single parent, never having married. “I’m proud to be a single mom,” she says. Far from bemoaning the disadvantages of the “mommy track,” she notes that “It actually was very rewarding for me to slow down my professional path at a booming time in my career.” She had a head coaching job offered to her, but chose instead to return to her alma mater, Northwestern, as an assistant to one of her best friends, Jenny Haigh. “Most people would call that a backward step,” Erickson says, but Chicago was “closer to home, closer to help [with Xiah], and, as a Northwestern alumna, in a sense it felt like I was going home.”

She coached there last fall and “wasn’t planning on leaving for a long time,” Erickson says. “I had a great little life. I knew that if I were to be a head coach, there was a very short list of schools I would consider. Harvard was on that list. The combination of elite academics and elite athletics is what I do best. It’s where I can relate to players and recruit successfully. I believe in what’s going on—having integrity with academic standards, and not compromising that for athletics, while still being successful on the field. A lot of people would shy away from that challenge, thinking it would be hard to win. But Stanford is the ‘academic’ school of the Pac-10 and Northwestern is the academic school of the Big Ten. That’s the kind of student athlete I want to coach, and the kind I was.”

Erickson endorses a sense of proportion, not only between studies and sports, but between work and the rest of life. “I have a daughter, and I don’t want to deprive her of a life,” she says. That doesn’t mean that the new coach’s goal isn’t to win the Ivy championship and be in national contention every fall. In fact, young Xiah, who already talks about soccer and has seen quite a few games, may become the youngest assistant in the country. The toddler has not yet played any soccer but, as her mother says, “She tries.”

                     ~Craig Lambert

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