October 3, 2012

30 in 30: How is UMBC's Co-Coach System Looking?

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com

UMBC women's co-head coaches Amy Appelt and Tony Giro pose with the school's Retriever mascot upon being elevated from assistants on July 5.
© UMBC athletics

Amy Appelt and Tony Giro have known each other for years, finish each other's sentences and can anticipate each other's restaurant orders. But it's not what you think.

"We're not married. Yet," Giro deadpans.

Formerly assistants under Kelly Berger, who did not coach the last two games of the Retrievers' 2012 season and officially resigned June 27, Appelt and Giro have taken on a unique assignment as co-head coaches of the UMBC women's lacrosse team. They are the only co-head coaching pair out of 93 Division I programs.

"We do have a level of respect for each other that's on a coach level, and a friendship-family level. Our one goal is for UMBC to win, and to be on the map, and to go to the tournament year after year," Appelt said.

There are plenty of powerful assistants in the coaching ranks, and it has become popular for the best of them to be designated associate head coaches. But with the exception of UMBC, there is only one head coach for every team. Appelt and Giro are attempting a new paradigm for a profession, in all sports, that traditionally attracts single-minded field generals.

Appelt, the 2004 Tewaaraton Award winner and an NCAA champion at Virginia, was an assistant under Berger for three seasons. Giro comes from a baseball background but in lacrosse was defensive coordinator for the powerhouse Mt. Hebron (Md.) High School girls' program before joining UMBC as a volunteer assistant coach in 2009. He eventually became a full-time assistant, and on July 5 was elevated to co-head coach along with Appelt. It's the first time either of them have helmed a program, although they are now doing so together.

"This is a unique situation, but Tony and Amy complement each other so well that I felt it was absolutely the right way to go," athletic director Charlie Brown said in a press release announcing their double-barreled hire.

So far, the experiment is working.

"We don't have those egos that need to shine," Appelt said. "When I don't know the answer to something, I don't let my head swell. I'll go to Tony and say, 'I can't figure this out.'"

But even friendly, like-minded people can disagree. Appelt and Giro had their first conflict of opinion on April 25, the first game after Berger's late-season departure with Giro serving as the acting coach. The Retrievers were leading Johns Hopkins, 7-6, with less than three minutes to play. Two strategies emerged: go for the insurance goal or just hold on for the win.

"Amy said, 'We should go! We should go!' and I was like, 'We should hold it! We should hold it!'" Giro recalled.

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Ultimately, Johns Hopkins made the decision for them — coach Janine Tucker pulled her goalie, sent another field player over the restraining line and pressured UMBC for a turnover. Taylor D'Amore shot high on the would-be equalizer with nine seconds left in regulation, and the Retrievers walked away with the win.

"There are going to be times when we differ, but we agree 99 percent of the time," Giro said. "It's a lot of communication and just trusting each other's instincts, and putting our kids in a position to succeed. I don't think it's any different from any other staff in that regard."

For 2013, 19 of their players are freshmen or sophomores. UMBC picked up transfers from two 2012 NCAA tournament teams with Ali Carpenter (Loyola) and Alyssa Semones (Penn State), as well as Mary Milligan (Anne Arundel CC), Lacrosse Magazine's 2012 JuCo Preseason Player of the Year.

Perhaps the two-headed coaching monster has fostered a spirit of collectivism among the Retrievers' pack. They have four team captains, and both senior Kendall Mason and sophomore Anna Barnett are viable options as starters in the goal. They each played a half in a 7-3 fall ball loss to Johns Hopkins, with Mason making eight saves in the first half and Barnett making four stops in the second half. Mason has started intermittently throughout her career; Barnett made the America East second-team as a freshman.

"They know it's a competition and we're lucky to have them both. It's a positive competition between the two. It's not a bloody competition," Giro said.

On attack, Appelt envisions an even-handed approach on the field. Senior midfielder Lindsay Cox (42g, 8a) and sophomore attacker Abby Wilson (22g, 7a) are the top returning scorers and Canadian national team player Jordan Lyons is back after redshirting the 2012 season. Appelt is excited about freshman Kris Coppolino, an attacker from Winter Springs, Fla., who reminds her of former Northwestern star Aly Josephs.

At midfield, Giro wants a rotating cast of characters. That's less a philosophical position than a strategic one — UMBC finally has enough depth between the lines they can sub out their starters without losing a step.

"We'll have a rotation of a couple different middie lines, with maybe some FOGOs and more defensive-minded middies," Giro said.

Amidst all the conviviality and team-minded strategy, Appelt and Giro want to cultivate a competitive streak amongst the Retrievers.

"Our motto is compete every day. Cheer for the person in front of you, but compete for their job," Appelt said. "To compete that hard against each other, they get to the point when they can do it against someone in a different colored jersey."

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