Free Press coach of the year: How Kelly McClintock led Rice field hockey to mountaintop

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On her third climb of Kilimanjaro, Kelly McClintock began plotting her coaching approach and motivation tactics that would come to define Rice’s 2019 high school field hockey season.

At some point on last summer’s ascent atop Africa’s tallest peak, some 19,000 feet above sea level, it hit McClintock, who’s hiking party included recently graduated star Lisa McNamara.

“I told the team, ‘We are going to attack Everest this year because Everest is the biggest mountain and we want to go big. But in order to do that, we aren’t going to talk about the summit of Everest until that last moment. We are going to talk about where we need to get to each day,'” McClintock said.

Without McNamara, the state’s best player and Free Press athlete of the year, and with limited numbers and experience, McClintock freshened an old sports cliché, an analogy best suited for this crop of Green Knights to track down a state crown. 

“We really had to start at the bottom, the bottom of the mountain,” McClintock said. “We had to just worry about the checkpoints each day, reaching base camp, and not the top of the mountain.”

The result? The program’s first Division I championship. Today’s honor? McClintock named Free Press coach of the year.

More: D-I championship: Rice topples Bellows Falls for breakthrough crown

“We knew we had a very long road ahead of us and there was a definitely a lot of doubt at the beginning of the season,” said cousin Caroline McClintock, Rice’s midfield leader who earned BFP player-of-the-year-honors. “Every year we always see improvement, but it was really incredible to see what Kelly did with what she was given (in 2019), really transforming us into a championship team.”

As Caroline McClintock noted, results in early September didn’t yield much success. Rice opened 1-3, each defeat by one-goal margins, with a 1-0 setback at Stowe particularly bothersome. The Green Knights were unable to score at the D-III power despite 19 penalty corners.

“The first couple games were tough for us, but the girls were really receptive and totally bought in,” Kelly McClintock said.

More than a fifth of Rice’s 14-player roster had no more than a year of experience with the sport. Some had none. All-state performers like Caroline McClintock, Kristen Varin, Kate Buckley and Amy Hester were as reliable as they were dependable, but coach McClintock knew the team’s chances rested on the growth of each individual. 

“I think that’s why the title meant so much because we were so small and we had to use every girl, every resource available, and everyone stepped up to the plate and knew their specific role,” McClintock said. “They knew what their job was and everyone had to be versatile.”

To get there, McClintock narrowed focus on a daily basis in practices and even in games, and discussed a strategy to implement with Kate Pfeifer, head coach of the University of Vermont field hockey program.

“We really recognized that we couldn’t give up a lot of goals. All players needed to know how to defend,” said McClintock, a Rice alum who graduated from UVM in 2008 as the fourth-leading goal-scorer in program history. “They all did it as one unit. As our games started piecing together, it became a beautiful game of field hockey.”

After the Stowe loss, the Green Knights went 11-1-1 and gave up just seven goals. They were even better in the postseason, outscoring three opponents 13-0 with a 45-1 edge in corners.

“She has the right energy, that’s where she went to school, and she’s passionate about the sport,” South Burlington coach Anjie Soucy said. “She has a lot to offer and she wants to teach the right skills, the right way to play.”

In the semifinal win over Mount Mansfield, Rice racked up corners and chances but couldn’t get one past the Cougars’ standout freshman goalie Marcelle Barber — until the overtime period when Buckley converted a Hester pass inside the circle.

More: Rice bags OT winner to best MMU, reach its 1st D-I field hockey final

“Kelly’s very competitive. She has a really good feel on the pulse of the kids she coaches,” said MMU coach Paige Manning, whose daughter played with McClintock at UVM. “She definitely has that down, being able to read that, and the kids suck that right up.”

Then in the title game, the Green Knights climbed to the top of their Everest, unseating reigning champion Bellows Falls with a quintessential performance in the 4-0 triumph.

“To be able to have your best game in the finals is the ultimate way to end a season,” McClintock said.

McClintock’s near-decade run at her alma mater has been a journey on its way. When she interviewed for the position, Rice was coming off a D-III three-peat and the athletic director asked her if she wanted to win titles or play at the top level.

McClintock wanted to do both. And now she has.

“It’s been a process for me. Through the years I’ve changed the way I’ve coached like this season,” McClintock said. “I try and draw inspiration from traveling and create new ideas that will help the girls. And it’s working, it’s made me a better coach.”

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Contact Alex Abrami at 660-1848 or aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

Free Press Coaches of the Year

2020: Kelly McClintock, Rice

2019: Marikate Kelley, Vergennes/Mount Abraham

2018: Mike Wood, Rutland

2017: Ute Otley, CVU

2016: Scott Bliss, CVU

2015: Dennis Smith, Middlebury