First-year Mainland Regional field hockey coach Erin O’Connell has a lot of experience with the Mustangs’ program, as she’s a former star player who graduated in 2013. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Staff Writer

Jill Hatz had an outstanding run as head field hockey coach at Mainland Regional High, building the Mustangs into one of the better teams in the Cape-Atlantic League year in and year out. Mainland was a perennial state playoff qualifier under her leadership, so it came as a shock that Hatz decided to step down after last season. She led the Stangs to 28 wins in her final three seasons.
The program is looking to continue that tradition under former Mainland standout player and assistant coach Erin O’Connell, who took over for Hatz thi season. The Mustangs went 5-10-2, but with a young roster and a new head coach there is plenty to build on heading into 2023.
O’Connell said she hasn’t had to change much because Hatz built such a successful program, and she’s trying to take the wisdom she learned in five years as an assistant under Hatz to help formulate her own vision for the future of the program.
“She left me in good hands. In five years of coaching under her I learned a lot. I learned a lot about coaching this team, and in taking over this team I’m excited. I love coaching this team,” said O’Connell, 27, who went on to play at Fairleigh Dickinson University after her playing days at Mainland ended following the 2012 season. “The biggest thing I learned from her is understanding that my players are high school females and that there is a lot more to life than this. Sometimes I have to take a step back and remember that there are so many other outside factors that go into this. We have to remember that as coaches. I think that’s the biggest thing we can do as coaches is take a step back and realize that there may be something else going on (with a player).”
O’Connell said she believes her familiarity with the program and its players played a big role in her feeling so comfortable guiding this team in her first season as the one calling the shots. She also has some great help with assistants Angela Robbins and Taylor Klever.
“I think overall it’s been positive. I’m keeping a lot of the same traditions that they are used to, and the transition has been pretty seamless,” O’Connell said. “I think when the girls heard Jill was stepping down that can definitely be shocking — for rising seniors, especially. I think they were excited to hear (much of the staff was returning). Taylor has been on staff and I’ve been on staff for the past couple of years, so I think it’s been a good transition.”
O’Connell, who teaches eighth-grade English in Upper Township, said she was nervous for her first gig as a varsity head coach, but wasn’t about to show any trepidation in front of her players when summer practice began.
“It was a seamless transition. I was nervous, but I didn’t let them see that I was nervous,” she said. “It was seamless because I had been here and the girls on the team know me, so it was just stepping into a new role for me and them understanding that I have more and bigger decisions to make as head coach now, rather than just being an assistant. They did a really good job of adjusting to that.”
Having understanding parents of players is a huge advantage for a first-year coach, and O’Connell said her field hockey parents have been nothing but supportive.
“The parents have been great. As a coaching staff we do a lot in terms of getting the girls to advocate for themselves. If there is a problem or if they need to tell us they have to go here, or have to go there, or if they need to adjust something (in their schedule) they do a good job of communicating that themselves,” she said. “It can be a lot and overwhelming at times, but it’s been going well.”
What’s the biggest difference between being an assistant and running the show? All the little things you have to keep track of, O’Connell said.
“I find myself noticing more things as a head coach. Not that I wasn’t noticing things as an assistant, but now I’m really paying attention to things like, OK, we worked on that in practice the other day and they were able to do it in the game, that’s great,” O’Connell said. “Or I’ll see something and say to myself that we need to make sure we’re working on that the next day in practice. As an assistant, your role is different. As a head coach, I find myself noticing a lot more things.”
One thing Mainland field hockey fans likely will notice for a long time to come is O’Connell roaming the sidelines as head coach of the Stangs. She’s not planning on giving up this job anytime soon.
“I love this team, I love being here, I love the girls and I love this sport,” she said. “My assistants, I couldn’t do it without Angela Robbins and Taylor Klever. I would not have been able to take over this program had it not been for them. A lot of credit has to go to them.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: On Twitter: @GDsullysays