July 26, 2011
by: Brent Henningfeld
“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”
When Nobel Peace Prize recipient Henry Kissinger uttered those words, he could not have predicted their direct correlation to sport. In today’s athletics landscape, however, achieving what has yet to be achieved is what every great team, athlete and, in this case, coach strives to accomplish.
Christine Halfpenny, the newest addition to the University of Notre Dame coaching family, has exemplified leadership not only in her previous stints as a collegiate coach, but starting even before that as a student-athlete on the Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse team.
Entering her freshman season with the Hokies in 1996, the program was embarking on only its second season of existence at the varsity level, coming off a 2-7 campaign. After battling to an 11-17 combined record in her first two years in Blacksburg, Va., Halfpenny and her fellow upperclassmen teammates helped guide Virginia Tech to unprecedented heights.
In 1999, on the heels of – at the time – the worst season in program history, Halfpenny and Virginia Tech pieced together the most victories in single-season school history up to that point – eight. The momentum continued the following season and in the first year as a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference the Hokies won a program-best 11 games on the way to claiming the A-10 Tournament Championship.
“I vividly remember during practice, my sophomore year, that this was something I wanted to be a part of for a long time,” Halfpenny recalls. “My college coach was teaching crease defense and I just realized right then and there that I wanted to teach this sport and compete at the highest possible level. I was fortunate enough to win a conference championship my senior year and that certainly motivated me to pass along my experience to the next generation by being a coach at the Division I level.”
After assistant coaching stops at Brown University (2000-02) and her alma mater Virginia Tech (2003), Halfpenny further realized her dream of teaching the game to the younger generation when she landed a job with Duke University as an assistant for three seasons (2004-06) under long-time Blue Devils head coach Kerstin Kimel.
On the field, Halfpenny and the staff entered into a stretch of tremendous success. Over the three-year span, her teams combined for a 48-13 record that saw them claim the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season crown in each of those seasons, including the ACC tournament title in ’05.
Accolades poured in from every direction, both team and individually oriented. The team reached the NCAA Tournament all three years, including back-to-back appearances in the NCAA semifinals in ’05 and ’06, the first such accomplishment in program history. Megan Huether, the goalkeeper for the Blue Devils in ’05, was named IWLCA/U.S. Lacrosse Goalie of the Year and earned first team All-America billing under the direction of Halfpenny. Three players copped IWLCA/U.S. Lacrosse All-America distinction in ’04 with Halfpenny’s guidance as offensive coordinator.
It was what transpired off the field and in the classroom, however, that brings the most pride to Halfpenny in her time in Durham, N.C. In each of her first two campaigns with Duke, Halfpenny, serving as the team’s academic coordinator, helped the team post the highest grade-point average amongst all Division I women’s lacrosse teams in ’04 (3.46) before posting the second-highest mark in ’05 (3.416), a true testament to Halfpenny’s objective of balancing the competitive drive on the field toward excelling in the classroom ranks.
“Duke was a great platform for me to assert myself as a leader,” Halfpenny states. “It was also a great opportunity for me to start helping these 18-to-22-year old women, because as much as they may be dropped off to college as adults they are still young. I think especially with the rigors of being at such a prestigious academic institution I felt that I really had the opportunity to assert myself a little bit more and help the girls individually as both players and student-athletes. I helped them to balance their lives of academics while helping to cultivate their own leadership during their four-year experience.
“It was awesome,” Halfpenny continues. “I was there with the resurgence of their program; getting back to the final four in ’05 and ’06. It really was something special, not only to see those girls achieve their goals but also to see them getting jobs prior to graduating. I thought that was outstanding.”
These high standards did not go unnoticed, as in July of 2006 Halfpenny realized her head coaching dream when she was named to that position at The College of William & Mary.
Over her five-year tenure in Williamsburg, Va., Halfpenny helped navigate the Tribe to four consecutive 10-win seasons (2008-2011) while also claiming Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) regular season titles in both ’08 and ’09. Individually, her impact was recognized as she was named both the ’08 CAA Coach of the Year as well as the VaSID (Virginia Sports Information Directors) Coach of the Year.
Again, however, Halfpenny did not stop at mentoring her athletes simply on the playing field, doing so in their studies as well. Over a four-year span from ’07-’10, Halfpenny helped guide 59 of her players to CAA Commissioner’s Academic Award recognition, including 16 who earned the distinction in ’10.
“There’s those pressures and obstacles and adversities that people don’t see on a daily basis both in the classroom and on the field,” Halfpenny says. “I have kind of implemented a lot of programs beginning with my time and Duke and continuing at William and Mary that have really helped to transition these young women to a college setting and then build for their time after college, as far as leadership goes. I would say my greatest accomplishment are the girls who land jobs before we even start our senior year and the young women that are getting in contact with me when they are out there in the real world. Those are probably the neatest things that have happened in my last eight years of leading these highly talented and achieved women.”
Improvement among her student-athletes is not the only objective of Halfpenny. She also takes great pride in providing a coaching example to each coach that works under her direction.
“This was my first and only year working under Christine,” says Shannon Burke, a former player with the Irish lacrosse team and first-year assistant coach at William and Mary. “I think within that year, she really taught me that in order to keep growing as a coach that you are never finished developing as a mentor to the players. We as coaches are never finished developing them as players and people, and likewise we are never finished developing as coaches. She has really taught me that no matter how good you are or how good you think you can be, you can always be better. She has always pushed our team in that direction. She has always taught me to be that way in the office and has always told me to ask questions.”
In her newest endeavor, Halfpenny enters into a situation ripe with opportunity to thrive both athletically and academically at the University of Notre Dame. A talented crop of players has been assembled from all across the nation. This group has accrued a 37-21 record over the past three seasons, including back-to-back berths to the NCAA tournament in ’09 and ’10.
“It is an incredible honor to be named head coach of the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse program,” Halfpenny says. “I am extremely excited and proud to represent all that the University of Notre Dame embodies: excellence, education, tradition, faith, and community. I believe in these core values and each has helped to shape my life and bring me to this opportunity. I would especially like to thank (University Vice President and Director of Athletics) Jack Swarbrick and (Assistant Athletics Director) Juli Schreiber for this amazing opportunity.”
Most certainly, a dream has been realized for Halfpenny as she prepares to embark on her journey as the leader of the Fighting Irish women’s lacrosse program.