Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Influential Coaches #2: Tara Gallagher

Previous entries:

Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal

I spent more hours under Tara's tutelage than under anyone else during my professional career, and it's not particularly close. I was her assistant for four and a half years with both the middle school basketball and softball teams, the junior varsity and later varsity basketball teams, and the varsity softball team. She was an extremely dedicated and creative coach who worked extremely hard to get the most out of what were, under any objective analysis, some fairly limited basketball rosters (in our five years together on the bench, we only had three players for whom basketball was their primary year-round sport).

I met Tara when I came to interview at National Cathedral for a middle school basketball coach opening right after Thanksgiving in 2006. She showed me around the school's impressive athletic facility, and I remember casually thinking to myself that she was maybe five or six years older than me, and had probably been coaching for around that long. As it turns out, I was not the first, nor certainly the last, to underestimate her abilities and qualifications. She was only in her second year at NCS, but had coached at the college level for eighteen years (all in Division I) before that.

Tara comes from a big family (seven kids! - that may have helped her hone her competitive edge) that hails from a small town near the junction of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey (on the New York side). She starred in basketball at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where her name still dots the record book, most notably the fact that she is third in single-season scoring (555 points - a figure that led the nation - before college basketball adopted the three-pointer) and fourteenth in career scoring despite only being listed as playing for two seasons. That's pretty ridiculous, and she is deservedly in the ESU Athletics Hall of Fame.

What's even more ridiculous is that Tara was a head coach for TWO different sports at the NCAA Division I level (basketball and softball). She guided the Wagner College softball team to a 71-57 record from 1989-92 (including the program's first two 20-win seasons) before diving back into basketball as an assistant coach at Seton Hall. She eventually returned to Wagner as the head basketball coach six years later, serving seven years before leaving and moving to Washington after the 2004-05 season. I doubt that more than ten people have pulled off that feat (being the head coach of two sports at the Division I level) in the past thirty years or so.

As a basketball coach at NCS, Tara worked her hardest to make lemonade out of, well, lemons. We worked with some terrific young ladies during our time together there, but as mentioned earlier just three of them were basketball players, as opposed to girls who played basketball. In my first year as her assistant with the junior varsity team, we had the misfortune of having a team made up entirely of freshmen during the exact year that the varsity team moved from the Independent School League's lower division to its upper division. This meant that not only were all of our girls adjusting to the faster pace and tougher competition of high school basketball in general, they had to do so against the best JV programs in our league. And it was a tough go, as we struggled against merciless outfits like Georgetown Visitation to so much as get the ball across halfcourt, let alone get a good shot off. When some sort of "itis" swept through our team and knocked us down to five healthy bodies, we were allowed to bring up an eighth grader (a phenomenal raw athlete) who instantly became our second-best player and made us at least more competitive throughout the remainder of the season (though we finished 2-15, with both wins coming against nearby Sidwell Friends, then still in the lower division).

What Tara was so good at was recognizing our team's shortcomings (which were many) and devising a game plan that would at least give us a chance to score some easy points and stay in the game. We threw out a full-court 1-2-1-1 press on every made basket or baseline turnover, with our center pressuring the ball, a rail-thin but tough-as-nails guard with long arms waiting to trap the entry pass, and a converted soccer goalie at the back who, although not fleet of foot, had good anticipation on long downcourt passes. When the eighth grader joined the team, she got put on the ball and our center moved to midcourt. With that press we got ourselves an extra ten to twelve layup attempts a game, which were a necessity for a team with just one reliable jump shooter. We may have only won two games, but thanks to Tara's strategic planning we were close in seven of our losses, a respectable figure with such an inexperienced team thrown into the fire so quickly.

The following season, we only returned three of ten players to JV (three moved up to varsity and the rest dropped basketball altogether), but were fortunate that one of them was the mid-season acquisition (how she did not make varsity her freshman year as an energy defender/rebounder off the bench is one of the great unsolved mysteries of my life in sports). The other two returnees were the guard and the soccer goalie. We had only eight players on the roster, and again Tara re-jiggered the game plan, moving almost exclusively to a 1-4 high offense that let our freshman forward use her explosiveness to get by people and get to the basket, where she would have a good chance of either a layup or drawing a foul.* We still pressed, with the same heavy pressure from the top of the zone (and from the same primary players), and we managed to convert more of those layup attempts en route to a 6-10 record with six close losses.

*Although she didn't know her own strength, which frequently resulted in a missed layup that she would grab on the other side of the basket before trying again (and occasionally again). This girl was an offensive rebounding machine despite being no more than 5'6".

I don't know why basketball is such an unpopular sport at NCS, given that its only winter competition for athletes is swimming (the climbing program typically does not draw from the same pool as basketball). Yet there remained very little interest in the sport through our final season together, in 2010-11. In that year, with only three varsity winter sports and around 320 girls in the upper school, just sixteen played basketball. We had ten on varsity and six on JV for most of the season, after a player from each team (arguably the best player from each) dropped basketball before Christmas (as a result of injuries). But it's a testament to Tara's coaching ability and competitiveness that our girls never quit fighting through what was a very long and draining season.**

**The best example? That freshman point guard from the year before tore her ACL playing soccer in the fall, and our backup plan broke her wrist in the first game of the season and eventually decided not to rejoin the team once she healed. That resulted in our third option, a junior shooting guard who had been somewhat difficult to coach when we had her in middle school, moving to the point, where she had to run the offense, carry the scoring load, and frequently defend the best guard on the other team. Somehow she played almost 550 consecutive minutes (across seventeen games) before fouling out in a mid-February game, which turned out to be her only stint on the bench all season (I think). It was an admirable season-long performance from a player who matured tremendously over the course of a year.

Although our players on the varsity team mostly knew the score, I often felt that Tara's credentials did not get nearly enough respect from parents and other program outsiders who only saw the wins and losses. In our first season with the varsity team, there was an unpleasant amount of sideline coaching and disruptive behavior from some parents who were frustrated with the team's record but had perhaps forgotten that there were no more Division I talents on the roster (a girl who played four years at Stanford - a traditional women's powerhouse - and was the biggest factor in landing the team in the ISL's upper division to begin with had graduated two years earlier). Tara's coaching wasn't the issue; we just no longer had the same caliber of basketball players as most of the other teams in our division. Sometimes that happens. It's worth noting that when another superb talent (and a deep supporting cast) joined the team in 2011-12, the basketball team went 17-4, winning the lower division. Over the past two years (after also adding the daughter of a former Duke All-American) they have kept winning after moving back into the upper division.

While our philosophies for coaching basketball lined up very well during our time together, we had more fundamental differences in softball. Specifically, my softball philosophy derives almost entirely from my baseball philosophy, which is heavily influenced by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and Bill James. To be sure, softball is different, where slap-hitting and bunting are much more prevalent than in baseball (and of course the ball, pitching style, and field dimensions are all different). But regardless, in the same position I would not have put someone right behind our leadoff hitter whose only purpose was to bunt that person over and give up an out. Still, it's hard to argue with someone who built a 20-game winner out of a young college program in her mid-twenties, and our stylistic differences did not get in the way of coaching a couple of pretty good teams.

Tara was very patient with me as her pitching coach for the 2010 season, certainly more patient than one of our two pitchers was (although we did tie for first in the division). She also tolerated my propensity for documenting everything from pitch location to foul tips quite well,*** even though I don't think that that was necessarily her preferred style of coaching. Still, softball was, though still competitive, a chance to relax a little bit, because of the slower pace of practices, the sunshine, and apart from one year when we lost three college-bound players while only adding one new core player, more wins.

***This applied to every sport I ever coached. The volleyball and basketball players were amazed that I could keep my attention on the game while simultaneously making perfectly identical tally marks on a full-page spreadsheet that contained fifteen or so different statistical measures, not to mention making sure that Tara didn't burn all five of our timeouts in the first half of basketball games. I recall that a couple times she had to call three timeouts in the first quarter.

I can't help but think that it must have been difficult for someone who was so driven and successful as a player to have so few opportunities to coach similar players at NCS. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of those girls at the school, but very few of them have that drive and talent in basketball or softball. And it's even more of a shame that when those girls did come through the system, they more often than not rebelled against listening to her or were disrespectful, although she was an ideal coach for them.

As a whole, Tara did an excellent job allowing me to grow and develop under her without either micro-managing or letting anyone forget who was running the program. When necessary (which was often) she had me play on the scout team in basketball practice, or serve as a competitive measuring stick in shooting drills, while also allowing me to teach our inside players how to post up and box out properly. In softball, she handed over pitching coach duties to me after we were unable to find a second assistant in 2010, and trusted me to score and keep statistics, as well as giving me most of the game coaching duties for the middle school teams. As a result, I got to learn from a true professional while getting the opportunity to grow on my own as well. Tara finally left coaching after the aforementioned 2011-12 basketball season. I owe a huge chunk of my coaching education to her and I miss working with her (even during the more trying seasons), and I hope that all of the girls she coached at NCS realize or will some day realize how fortunate they were to have the opportunity to learn from someone of her ability.