By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, and it still won’t be long after Claudia McCarthy has left this Earth. But on a cool November day a few weeks ago, the legendary Millville High field hockey coach got to take a stroll down memory lane in a unique way that few prep coaches ever will.
After the final whistle of a late-season home game, former players lined the field from end to end, and coach McCarthy — who retired this season after 50 years of coaching field hockey at Millville — started greeting players, beginning with her 2020 team and ending with graduates from the early 1970s. And, waiting at the end of that line of admirers was McCarthy’s family, which has continued to grow in the five decades since she first put a coach’s whistle around her neck at the tender age of 22 in 1971.
“Everybody had a shirt that said, ‘I played in the McCarthy era of 1971 to 2020.’ The people who could make it came to that game, and at the end they lined up from one end of the field to the other according to their year of graduation. I started out with my 2020 team, and as I walked down, the people got older and older until I got to people who had gray hair. It was so cool, just walking down and saying hi to people,” McCarthy said. “Some people had traveled from more than an hour away. It was really neat. And at the very end of the line was my whole family — my kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, cousins — and they said, ‘now you’ve come to the end, and here’s your family that you’re going to be able to spend a whole lot more time with. It was a really nice ceremony, and that’s something I’ll never forget.
“People put the videos up on Facebook, and you know how when you put something on Facebook people share it and comment on it? All night long I was reading comments, really, really nice things people were saying, how they remember the season they played and all the good memories,” she continued. “It’s something they’ll never forget, playing field hockey for Millville, and it just felt good reading all those comments.”
McCarthy’s numbers are worthy of any and every kind of hall-of-fame there is in South Jersey. She finished her career with 610 wins and a winning percentage well north of 60 percent. Her coaching style always has been to get the best out of every girl who comes out for the team, and in an age when “recruiting” is rampant at the high school level, McCarthy has never tried to lure a great athlete away from another school. Whatever names are on the sign-up sheet in August, that’s who she’s going to coach, and she’s going to do her best to turn that group into a championship contender.
This season offered a prime example of why McCarthy has been such a good coach for so long. Through graduation and a player moving away, the Thunderbolts were left without a single goalie on the roster. What did McCarthy do? She took a field player, taught her how to be a goalie, and led her team into the playoffs — again. Their run came to an end against Mainland Regional in the sectional quarterfinals, but even the Mustangs knew they were up against a tough team even if sophomore goalie Lily Mahabir didn’t have much experience.
“It’s tough to play against them because she’s such an experienced coach,” said Mainland captain Jules Medina. “I think it’s great for them to have a coach for that long, and it’s a little intimidating when you see a coach who is that good.”
“I enjoy coaching, I enjoy taking my team in the summer and molding them into a team that works well together. I love the challenge. Millville doesn’t always get the best athletes; people don’t move to Millville to play field hockey. I’ve never had an incoming transfer who made a difference on our teams. But my philosophy is that every school, every town needs a coach who is dedicated, loves the sport and is willing to work with the girls — it’s my philosophy, and I’ve always held true to it, that I coach the hand I’m dealt. Whatever we have, we make a team and work with them. They may not all have the best abilities, but we mold them into a team,” McCarthy said. “This year, we came into the season without a goalie. Our goalie coming up from JV moved to another state, so we had nobody. I didn’t have one single goalie on our team this year, so I took a field player who was willing to give it a try and we worked with her and developed her in practice the best we could. I thought she did a great job, and I love that challenge, to be able to mold somebody and develop them. She’s a sophomore and she’s getting better, and whoever takes my job is going to have a good goalie for the next two years. That’s the kind of stuff I love, working with the girls and making our team the best we can make it with the girls we have.”
Throughout the years, family has been a constant in McCarthy’s life, and the Millville field hockey program. McCarthy raised three sons and a daughter while teaching and coaching; she coached her own younger sister, Nancy, during her first year of coaching in 1971; she coached her daughter and several granddaughters, and has even more grandkids coming up through the ranks who no doubt will make an impact in South Jersey sports as they get older.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing for her. She never really yells, she just talks to us after the game. She’s a very happy-go-lucky coach and it’s a very different atmosphere than my club team. She has a love for the game and her players, and treats everyone equally,” said Casey Etter, a Millville senior this year and one of McCarthy’s granddaughters. “I thought she was going to retire when my older sister, Corrine, was done, but then she said she was going to stick it out for me. I really enjoyed that and I’ve really enjoyed playing for her. She’s a legend. Everyone knows her. If we go out to a store or go out to eat everyone knows her and is saying hi and everyone is talking to her.”
McCarthy graduated early from what is now The College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State College) in December of 1970, and on her 22nd birthday, Feb. 1, 1971, she landed a teaching job and was immediately inserted as the Millville junior varsity girls basketball coach. Times were certainly different back then.
“Lots of rules have changed over the years,” McCarthy explained. “When I first started coaching basketball, we had six players — three forwards and three on defense, and they couldn’t cross the center line, you had to pass the ball over the center line. Then they changed it where you could have a roving forward and a roving defensive player. Finally, it went to the same as the boys were playing, five-on-five.”
McCarthy, who also coaches girls lacrosse at Millville, never took a break from coaching even while raising sons Christian, Shaun and James, and daughter Chelsea, and she now boasts nine grandchildren.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’m surprised I made it through (doing this) while raising four children,” she said. “At the time I started, I had a 9-month-old, and every four years I had another child. I spaced them out and always had them in the summer. One was born June 20, one June 24 and one was July 26. I had my babies in the summer and just kept coaching. Never had a maternity leave, just kept going. I was able to raise them, get them to their babysitters, do everything I had to do, plus coach. It was crazy sometimes.”
McCarthy has been coaching for so long now that some of her former players are now grandmothers. The beauty of technology and social media is that nowadays coach McCarthy can remain connected with some of those former players from the 1970s, 80s and 90s and watch their families grow.
“One of the things I really enjoy is some of the former players who I’ve stayed in contact with through Facebook, I get to see them get married, become parents and be involved with their children, and I think that’s really cool,” coach McCarthy said. “I’ve met a lot of people in 50 years of coaching and teaching, and I hope through that I’ve influenced some of their lives, because they have certainly given me a lot of memories and influenced my life.”
McCarthy shouldn’t spend much time wondering if she has influenced the lives of people in South Jersey. She’s an icon among South Jersey high school sports, right up there with the likes of Mainland’s Bob Coffey, St. Joseph’s Paul Sacco, St. Augustine Prep’s Paul Rodio, Paulsboro’s Paul Morina, Absegami’s Gene Barber, Danyle Heilig of Eastern and Moorestown’s Deanna Knobloch.
“The longer you have coaches, it does great things for the program. It builds history and makes everything more special. She’s had her daughters play for her and her granddaughters play for her. It’s commendable, to say the least. She just loves it. She’s one of those people who was born and raised in Millville and her heart is in that town,” said current Mainland field hockey coach Jill Hatz. “It’s amazing. I told her, I’m in season 12 and I can’t imagine coaching for 38 more. She’s been around for so long in field hockey and lacrosse and it’s been an honor to coach against her. I kind of want to ask her for her autograph.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays