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DLN ALL-AREA: Unionville’s Sheehan, Villa Maria’s Sweeney coached teams to promised land

The PIAA girls lacrosse state championships made Chester County proud this spring, with Unionville taking the 3A title and Villa Maria winning the 2A championship.

It was the first-ever PIAA state title for both teams, led respectively by head coaches Suzanne Sheehan and Allie Sweeney, the 2018 Daily Local News Girls Lacrosse Co-Coaches of the Year.

“When I accepted the coaching position at Unionville two years ago, I knew a state championship was on the horizon,” said Sheehan. “We had a great season, with a great group of girls, I was so excited to be a part of it. When the final buzzer sounded, I was elated, I screamed and ran to my two assistant coaches, Kelsey Jersky and Kendall Yarosh, and gave them a huge hug and thanked them for all their help this season. Then we joined the girls in celebrating.”

For Sweeney, who was a midfielder on the Villa Maria lacrosse team a decade ago, the Hurricanes’ state title was particularly sweet.

“After the final seconds ticked off and the team raced onto the field to celebrate, I turned around to the stands where I saw so many familiar faces, and then the current students started singing the Alma Mater,” said Sweeney. “Knowing these words and being able to join in was a special moment. It really brought home the fact that I played for this program, and now I am still lucky to be a part of it, and even luckier that we had accomplished all of our goals for the year.

“I think going to the school where you coach gives you an added incentive to do well and an advantage. I understand the routine of Villa and how the school is run and the expectations of the girls off the field. I had many of the same teachers and wore the same jerseys. Being able to win the state title as a coach is so rewarding and fulfilling, but when I also played for the team and saw every day in gym that lacrosse had no banners or accolades it makes it that much sweeter.”

Sheehan played lacrosse for Penncrest High School, then Neumann University, where she majored in biology. She later served an assistant coach at West Chester East for three years, and is on the coaching staff at the elite lacrosse travel program NXT.

“My coach at Neumann, Christy Malone [Fleagle], has been a huge mentor of mine, from the first day of accepting the [Unionville] position to winning the state title,” said Sheehan. “She’s helped me grow more confident as a coach and has provided me with much insight. Also, I am fortunate enough to have come from a large family, who have a great love for lacrosse. My siblings have been mentors to me throughout my lacrosse career and during this season.”

Sheehan has five older siblings, three of whom played lacrosse at Penncrest – Joe, who played lacrosse at Salesianum High School and Drexel University, and currently coaches at Norwood Fontbonne Academy; Maureen; Chrissy, who played at Drexel; Amy, who played at Drexel; and Kathryn, who played at Philadelphia University, then has served as an assistant coach at Holy Family University, Neumann University and Penncrest.

Both Sheehan and Sweeney emphasized the close-knit qualities of their respective teams.

Sheehan said, “If I had to describe our team’s [best attributes] in a few words, I would say togetherness, chemistry, and communication. We had great team dynamics on and off the field. We won a championship based on our ability to make good connections. We constantly challenged one another in practice, to make each player stronger in games.

“We had such a positive team morale and were constantly supporting one another during our entire season. Starting each game we were always relaxed and enjoying one another’s company, so by the first draw we were playing for each other and working together to do so.”

Sweeney said, “Our team was selfless. I can attribute much of our success to the girls supporting each other and being excited for others accomplishments. The girls truly believed in our team’s talent was better than any one individual’s talent. You could see it from the cheers on the sidelines, to the hugs and high fives given after every big and small play, that the girls supported each other.”

The Villa Maria coach taught her selfless team the importance – and satisfaction – of playing strong defense.

“I played midfield, but with a defensive mindset, and this is definitely indicative of my coaching technique,” said Sweeney. “I focus on us being the fittest team and I love defense. I have found it more fun to cause a turnover than score a goal, in both lacrosse and basketball.”

Regarding coaching philosophy, Sweeney mentioned the influence of several mentors, notably Philly Blast Club co-directors Julie Young and Josie Tomaino (who are head coaches at Villanova University and Episcopal Academy, respectively). She particularly admires Villa Maria’s long-time basketball coach Kathy McCartney.

“While I played basketball for McCart she made sure we worked hard on and off the court,” said Sweeney. “Before every season she told us a list of our priorities and I now do the same for my team. The list started like this: 1. God, 2. Family, 3. Academics, 4. Basketball (lacrosse), 5. Everything else. I use her list to make sure that every teammate is working hard, but also is committed to the team. With all the club sports and outside things I want to make sure that the girls are committed to each other. I learned about this commitment and high expectations from McCart. She is still a valid resource and someone I can call for advice or assistance whenever I need it.

“I am lucky to be apart of Villa’s rich athletic program. If I have half the success of the coach’s before me at Villa (primarily Maureen Polley, Kathy Hay and Kathy McCartney) I will be lucky. They made Villa become such powerhouses in field hockey, swimming and basketball. My family jokes I am going to be yet anther long-standing coach at Villa and I would be proud to be like any of them.”

Sheehan paid tribute to a couple of first-year assistant coaches on her staff this spring, Kendall Yarosh and Kelsey Jersky.

“Kendall worked well with the defense by showing them all different defensive styles,” said Sheehan. “Kelsey was our JV coach this season and helped lead them to an equally successful season. She was an extra set of eyes who was able to notice important details for us to work on, and she was an extra voice to help motivate the team.”

Sweeney credited the complimentary coaching styles of assistants Katy Manos and George Hopson for leading Villa Maria to the winner’s circle.

“I am a fairly calm, and relaxed coach; and Katy is the workhorse and helps me hold each player accountable,” said Sweeney. “She is loud and helps me to not second guess myself, while also pushing them in every workout we do. Katy is my sounding board and listens so well. I need her to help me stay focused and bring her big personality to it all. Katy is going a great job to shape the younger girls and is building our JV program so that we can continue to have a strong team in the coming years.

“George Hopson has been a part of this area’s lacrosse for decades. He is so knowledgeable in how other programs are run and what to expect. He sees things I miss and is quick to lend a helping hand in any way he can. George pushes the girls to the next level, when many of them think they don’t have it in themselves. He works hard with refining the varsity players.”

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