By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you attended a Holy Spirit High girls soccer game this fall, it might have been hard to pick out who the rookie head coach was. She doesn’t look all that different from the players on the team because she’s only six years older than the seniors she’s coaching, and she’s not that far removed from her own outstanding college career at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Her name is very familiar to Spartan fans, however.
Christine Conaghy had a record-setting career at Holy Spirit, scoring a then-school-record 34 goals as a senior in 2016 while adding 12 assists, and for her career she racked up 82 career goals. She was the Press of Atlantic City Player of the Year as a senior when she led Spirit to a South Jersey Non-Public B championship.
Conaghy, just 24 years old and studying for a masters degree at Stockton University, took over this fall from her old high school coach, Alicia Downey, who herself was a record-setting goal scorer during her days as a Spartan when she was known by her maiden name of Alicia Hall. Conaghy’s first season as a coach went about as well as she could have expected, as Spirit went 14-5 and made it to the semifinals of the South Jersey Non-Public B tournament. The Spartans also made it to the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals before falling to Ocean City, one of the top teams in South Jersey.
“It has been such an awesome, rewarding experience — definitely a lot of lessons learned, a lot of things that I never knew about as a player or appreciated that my coach did, like all the administrative duties,” Conaghy said. “There were a lot of first-time lessons learned, but it’s been awesome and the girls have been very patient with me, which has made it even easier. And the leadership on the team has also made it easy for my first year because there definitely was a learning curve.”
Conaghy said it wasn’t always easy asserting herself as an authority figure because she’s such a young coach and not that far removed from being a player herself.
“The hardest thing has definitely been kind of drawing that line — not the respect from them, but personally I’m not a very confrontational person. I’m an easygoing person. So that’s definitely been the hardest thing for me as a coach, to kind of have to lay my foot down and demand their attention during practice or during films because, you know, they’re high school girls,” Conaghy, an Absecon native, said. “They just want to have fun. Which is what high school sports are all about, having fun and being able to connect as friends. But that’s definitely the lesson that I’ve had to learn is kind of learning when to put my foot down. You have to be the bad guy sometimes.”
She also had to figure out a lot more about the game of soccer than what she was used to — playing up top as a striker and going to goal all game.
“I was definitely a little bit nervous about coaching. Playing the game is one thing, you just have to focus on yourself and how you do, but being in charge of an entire team — just tactically speaking, different formations and different reads on the game. I was a little bit nervous going in but I was actually pleasantly surprised by my ability to read the game and be able to advise the girls. The formational changes that we made throughout the season and the different technical things that I was able to coach the girls through, it’s really cool actually seeing the improvements in real time,” she said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot more, especially regarding defense. I played defense not at all throughout my college career or throughout high school. So the defense was something that I had to learn. But I think I did a decent job picking it up. Our defensive line right now, they’re all sophomores, actually, but they played like upper classmen, which is really cool to see. I think I’ve been able to lead them in the right way and help them be successful.”
There were plenty of highlights during her first season as a coach, most notably the trilogy the Spartans had against parochial rival Our Lady of Mercy Academy of Newfield, Gloucester County. Spirit beat OLMA, 5-4, in the teams’ first meeting of the year, in mid-September, but the Villagers returned the favor with a 6-5 victory in early October. The third time the teams met was in the CAL Tournament’s first round, where Holy Spirit won an epic 9-7 slugfest that saw senior Ella Petrosh score six goals.
“Seeing the girls celebrate the highs of the season, for sure, was one of the best things,” Conaghy said. “For example, our win over OLMA was huge, especially after losing to them. Every time we played them this season was battle. But that third time, I think our girls didn’t leave any question of how talented they were. They left it on the field and we won by two, but I really think it was a convincing win for us.”
Conaghy earned her undergraduate degree in biology from NJIT but said her ultimate goal now is to become a mental health therapist. She said she plans to continue coaching girls soccer at Holy Spirit because she wants her players to enjoy the experience with the Spartans as much as she did.
“I absolutely love it — not just the soccer part, but getting to connect with the girls. I’m a social worker, that will be my profession once I graduate in the spring. I love connecting with people and helping the girls be better people — that’s my calling,” she said. “It’s not just about soccer, it’s about helping them be better people and then having a good, fun high school experience. I had such a such a great experience at Holy Spirit in my four years there. So many fun memories made on the soccer field. So I really want to give them the same experience at the end of the day, whether we win every game or lose every game, as long as they’re having fun and growing as people, that’s definitely what motivates me and excites me, and I definitely see myself continuing to do this.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays