Longtime Villa Maria field hockey staple Polley officially steps down as head coach

MALVERN — For 44 years, when autumn came, you could always count on a few constants — the air would begin to chill, the leaves would begin to change colors — and Maurene Polley would be pacing the sidelines, armed with an imaginary stick and barking instructions to her Villa Maria field hockey team.

But due to health issues, Mrs. Polley has decided it is time to step down as head coach of the Hurricanes.

“I will still be a part of the program,’ said Polley. “I just need to step away from the head coaching position.’

She suffered a stroke in the spring of 2013 and took a leave of absence from her coaching and athletic director jobs. Former assistant Janet Coady filled in as coach this past season.

A graduate of Villa herself, when Polley first came to work at her alma mater, she pretty much did it all, teaching physical education in addition to acting as coach in pretty much every sport.

“Mrs. Polley came in my sophomore year and she coached me in every sport I played and taught me in every PE class,’ said Rene Muth Portland, a member of the Class of ‘ 71 and former women’s basketball coach at Penn State. “It’s funny — I didn’t even make the basketball team my freshman year, but when Mrs. Polley took a chance on me, my life in basketball began. I only remember winning and learning the drive to achieve it. I remember teams that worked hard because she did. Most of all, I remember my teammates because she made us family.’

Eventually, it was field hockey where Polley settled in and set about building a legacy in the sport matched few in the state of Pennsylvania.

During Polley’s tenure at Villa, the Hurricanes piled up 584 wins, qualifying for the state tournament 17 times in the last 20 years. There are enough championship banners to cover a field hockey field like a tarp. Polley’s teams captured 19 AACA titles, including 11 straight from 1985-1995. There were 11 District 1 championships, including an unprecedented six consecutive crowns from 2007-12, along with four runners-up finishes. And the Hurricanes won back-to-back state titles in 1993-94, while also finishing as state runners-up in 2011-12.

“It’s always fun to win the big games,’ said Polley. “Sharing all the traditions with the teams, and building the memories, like winning the state championships and all the district titles. Just wonderful memories.’

In January of 2012, Polley was honored with induction into the National Field Hockey Coaches Hall of Fame.

“I remember when I got the call, I almost didn’t believe it was true,’ said Polley. “I kept calling everyone I knew, just trying to find someone to tell. But I couldn’t reach anyone.’

She did eventually reach her husband, Ron, who set about making plans for a memorable day, renting a limousine to deliver his wife to the ceremonies in style, and recruiting a bunch of her Villa family to crowd the limo as it pulled in, as though Polley was a Hollywood starlet dealing with a rush of fans and paparazzi.

“But she messed up the plans,’ joked Mr. Polley. “She’s never early for anything and she was ready way in advance, so we beat the crowd.’

“I’m never late for field hockey,’ she chimed in. “But that was such a great day, and I was truly humbled to be honored in such a way, and with so many there for me.’

One hallmark of Villa field hockey under Polley was consistency. Regardless of the ever-changing personnel inherent with high school sports, Polley’s teams were always in the thick of things, qualifying for the District 1 tournament 23 of 24 years, reaching the state tournament over ten times.

“In the fall I’d talk to Mrs. Polley more often than to my own mother,’ said Joe Whalen, former Daily Local News sports editor and a field hockey aficionado. “It was every day during the playoffs. We’d be nearing deadline and I’d be gabbing away on the phone. It used to drive my staff crazy, but I’d tell them deadlines can wait, that Maurene Polley and Villa Maria field hockey are more important. We talked hockey year round, but mostly I listened. She taught me a lot.’

Polley has a knack for bringing out the best in everyone around her.

“We were the best because Maurene Polley had the unique and coveted ability to take an ordinary person and make them extraordinary,’ said Tess (Burigatto) Walvoord, a center-mid on the state championship teams and a Division-I college player at Northwestern University. “A mediocre athlete could be turned into a Div I player under her coaching. I have worked with many coaches up to the Olympic level from the US to Holland to Australia and beyond and Maurene Polley was one of the very few who was able to combine the work with fun in a way that made you want to show up, made you want to give your all and made you want to win.’

When it comes right down to it, even after all the wins and all the titles, what is most important to Polley was the coaching itself, working with the girls and helping them develop into the best that they can be. And she developed some very good ones, with over 300 of her former athletes moving on to play collegiately.

Among those former players is Maria Elena Bolles, a forward/midfielder on the 2013 NCAA champion Connecticut squad and Division I National Player of the Year.

“Mrs. Polley is still a huge person in my life,’ said Bolles. “I still talk to her all the time. She even called to let me know she was watching the Final Four, and to offer some tips. She’s my number one supporter. She’s taught me so many lessons, not just about field hockey, but for life. Things like never settling, and always striving to do better. Choosing to go to Villa was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Mrs. Polley made us a family.’

At no time was it more evident that Polley was a part of a bigger Villa family then when she fell victim to a stroke last spring. Prayers and well-wishes came in from everywhere, and anyone who could visit in person did exactly that.

“It was incredible the way Villa Maria Academy rallied around her,’ said Mr. Polley. “Bryn Mahr Rehab must have set a record for visitors. The room looked like a florist. I truly believe all that support was a huge part of Maurene’s recovery, which the doctors have said has been nothing short of miraculous.’

The recovery is ongoing and she is feeling better with each day.

“I’m still feeling a little tired at the end of every day,’ said Polley. “But the plan is to keep working hard in rehab for the next few months, and get back to work at Villa Maria as the Athletic Director, and to help out with the field hockey program.’

It’s really about just getting back to being a part of Villa Maria.

“I’ve spent over half my life at Villa Maria,’ said Polley. “It’s such a great place. I’ve had so many great years there, working with so many great people. I’ve had wonderful assistants that made my job easy, people like Janet Coady, who has been an assistant for the last seven years. All my assistants were great — Jenn-Drukin-O’Schell, Pat Lougher, Laurie DiPetro. All of them. And what wonderful support we always got from principal Regina Ryan. She’s been a great support since Day 1. I can’t thank her enough.’

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