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Burrillville field hockey mentor thrilled with national coaching laurel

April 14, 2014

BURRILLVILLE – Not long after Susan Burgess turned 17, back in the spring of 1978, someone asked her to coach an Uxbridge “Lassie Softball League” team of 12- and 13-year-olds.

She really didn't know what to expect, but – as an athlete – she knew all about a variety of sports and what the girls needed to learn, so she acquiesced.

Still, she was only 17 so enlisted some help.

“I actually took over a team with two of my cousins on it; I thought I'd do a good job,” Burgess recalled. “I remember the first practice; I'd tell someone to do something, and a few would say, 'Oh, God, I can't do that,' and I was, like, 'What?' I realized then I had to really concentrate on teaching the fundamentals. That was an eye opener. I took it more seriously then I thought I ever would.”

Weeks later, coaching the same squad, she came upon a truly difficult moment for a young mentor. Her girls were losing in the latter innings, and she knew she needed to make some changes to light a spark, so she asked her eldest cousin, a superb athlete in her own right, to take over as pitcher.

The girl told Burgess she didn't want to, but the coach stated she had to in order to give the club a chance at winning. Her cousin again refused, so Burgess stated, “OK, if you don't, you're going to sit on the bench.”

She was her way back to assume her position at short when the mentor stated, “I told you you're going to the bench, so go!

“The other cousin who played for me, she was happy,” Burgess laughed. “Her sister was just being stubborn; she wasn't looking at the big picture or the team concept. You know, she came up to me years later and said, 'I remember that, and I can't believe you did that to me, but I know why you did.' She said she never did anything like that again, and she ended up being a very good player.

“In a matter of weeks, I discovered that (coaching) had become a passion, and it was something (in which) I wanted to devote my life. That was really the beginning.”

Burgess has spent the last 35 years educating youngsters about the fundamentals in several athletic endeavors, the last six plus as the Burrillville High girls' field hockey mentor. In that time, she's received laurels from state representatives and the like for stellar campaigns, winning divisional or league crowns, etc.

None, however, meant more to her than being named the National Federation of High Schools' 2013 Rhode Island Field Hockey Coach of the Year.

“I guess I found out back in February; my (BHS) athletic director, John Abbate, had called me at work one day, but I couldn't answer it,” explained Burgess, an independent primary case manager/wound care nurse. “I had to leave my cell in the car because I was so busy with my patients.

“Later that afternoon, he called me back and was joking around. He said, 'I've got some good news and bad news,' so I asked him to give me the bad. He just told me, 'You're going to receive an award from the NFHS, but I'm not giving it to you until you give me the papers you owe me.”

(He had referred to her information about the Broncos' 2013 field hockey season, a list of who should collect post-season honors and what Abbate needed to budget for field hockey equipment for the next campaign).

“Once he told me he thought it was a national award, I said, 'Wow!'” she chuckled again. “He congratulated me, but I was a little taken aback. I knew how blessed I had been to have had the opportunity to work with the kids, and that I still had the drive to continue to coach.

“It's really nice when someone somewhere notices your work ethic and dedication to working with youths; it's tough, yes, but it's also very fulfilling,” she added. “I really don't know exactly what it's for – if it was last season (when she led the Broncos to a 7-5-2 overall mark and a berth in the Division II quarterfinals), or the year before (when she coached the kids to a sensational 17-0-1 record and its first Division II state title in 25 years).

“I've been told by some people that it's got to be prestigious because they just don't give that kind of honor to anybody, and that you have to meet certain criteria.

“When I worked at basketball games (taking tickets or serving in other capacities), people kept coming up and congratulating me, saying I deserve it, and all I would say was, 'Thank you!' It was unbelievable.

“To me, it's great; such an honor. It represents a ton of hard work, but I've gotten so much out of it, and it's been so rewarding. Like I said, I knew when I coached that first group of girls that I wanted to pursue it.

“Still, for all the great moments I've had, it's been the more trying and difficult situations that have led me to where I am now in my coaching career.”

**

After she got married, Burgess and her then-husband moved overseas for work, but she nevertheless remained involved with sports.

She admitted she played field hockey with a British men's team, then began coaching a Greek high school softball squad, one that played in international tournaments in England, Belgium, etc.

When she returned to New England in 1981, she was asked by then-Uxbridge High Athletic Director Mark Donahue to lead a junior high girls' basketball team, and she immediately accepted.

It was now in her blood.

“I loved the energy of the kids and the energy they gave me,” she noted. “I did that for two years before becoming an assistant JV coach (in Uxbridge, her alma mater), and we had great success.”

She often brought her four children to those contests, regardless of the sport she was coaching, because she wanted them to have the same love for athletics that she did, and – boy – did she succeed!

She reveled in mentoring student-athletes at UHS, the same school where she excelled as a field hockey and softball player, but she also claimed she learned a great deal from former mentors, among them Donahue, Keith Kurowski and Anthony Donatelli.

“Keith was elementary school physical education teacher, and Anthony did the same thing at Uxbridge High; he was also the AD,” she mentioned. “Mark was a new teacher at the high school and the varsity basketball coach; I remember going into the gym and watching him, listening to what he was telling the players.

“Another was Joe Mahoney, who was a teacher and the Uxbridge varsity softball coach,” she continued. “I tried to take what I saw them doing, what they worked on and how they expressed it, and avoid those things they weren't doing. I wanted to put together a good solid package of coaching philosophies and create a path to success for the kids, not just in sports but also outside (that realm).”

Over the years, she's coached AAU basketball, junior high and high school athletics, but also has served as the varsity field hockey coach at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

While at Burrillville, she has even formed a youth organization entitled “Chicks with Sticks” that not only competes in league contests while they're learning the game's nuances but also helps fund the BHS varsity and JV programs.

“One of the rewards I've had as a coach, I always had my four kids around me when I was on the field or court,” she offered. “They went to my practices and games because I wanted to instill in them a love for sports, not just one or two but all of them.

“With my daughter (Sarah Knowlton), I brought her to field hockey practices and she was always by my side, even as a five-year-old,” she laughed. “She went from being my sidekick at that age to my assistant with the Burrillville team after she graduated (from BHS).

“I wanted her to stick with it as a player and live it as an adult, and now she's coaching Cranston East (varsity field hockey),” she added proudly. “The only bad thing about that is I have to face her in games. Now that's tough!”

Burgess admitted her goal in life is to get an athlete to try something new, one he or she doubts they can do.

“I just adore the kids and seeing them succeed all they way around – athletically, scholastically, socially,” she said. “Unfortunately, even though girls' sports has come so far and reached pinnacles, some girls – much more than boys – will come to me and say, 'I can't do it. I just can't.'

“My response is, 'I don't want to hear you say that. There's no such thing as I can't because I know you can! When you see them succeed, see it come to fruition, it's so satisfying.

“I've had girls from both Uxbridge and Burrillville go on to play college hockey and earn scholarships,” she added. “Whether it's Division I, II or III, I don't care. If I've instilled in them a love for a sport and they want to keep playing it or coaching it, I'm thrilled. I like seeing them get what they want out of life.”

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