UVM turns to fresh face, with fresh ideas
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Leave it to the second-youngest head coach in Division I women's soccer to know how to spoil summer with a single email.
Just when University of Vermont players thought they finally had reached the luxurious laziness of summer, an email appeared from coach Kristi Lefebvre. It detailed the grueling conditioning tests that awaited their return, tests that until then had only been whispered about in much the same manner as the monster rumored to reside in Lake Champlain.
As junior Lily Feldman recalled, "At the end, she's just like, 'I just want you to know that if you don't make these standards, you're going to wish that you did.'
"And then she says, 'Have a good summer, Kristi,' and left it at that."
An old-school message delivered with modern means.
That a part of Lefebvre was born to coach does little to distinguish her from her peers in college soccer. What does distinguish her is that she was born in 1984.
Barely 26 years old when she was named Vermont's head coach last November, Lefebvre didn't wait long for the opportunity of a lifetime in her chosen profession. The school that didn't have a program worthy of her talents when she was growing up in nearby Colchester hopes it beat the crowd and found the kind of coach for whom it has waited a long time.
"Hiring coaches is much more art than science," Vermont senior associate athletic director Jeff Schulman said. "There's a lot of subjectivity in it. You're certainly looking for requisite technical knowledge and understanding of the game, but you're also looking for the right person for your program at that time. And when we really looked at our program and what our needs were and the fact that we had this really special coach right there, it was a pretty clear choice for us."
Lefebvre grew up going to men's and women's soccer games at Vermont, but neither the school nor her home state offered the high-level soccer her skills demanded. So in addition to starring at Colchester High School, where she was twice the state's prep player of the year, she regularly traveled to play for an elite club team based in Maryland.
In the demands of a commute to Maryland that stretched more than 500 miles each way and a club coach, Brad Roos, notorious for his intensity (as profiled by Newsweek in 2001), she faced an early choice as to what role soccer would play in her life. It was her choice, but she was made to understand that it came with responsibilities to those around her. Some people couldn't stand Roos; she thrived on his standards and didn't want to disappoint him, just as she didn't want to let down her parents, who would go to work Monday morning after getting home at 3 or 4 in the morning from a weekend of soccer in Maryland.
"If we were going to commit to [the Maryland club team], I was going to have to put in the time and put in the hours with a ball," Lefebvre recalled of the discussions with her parents. "And when we get down there, that everything I had was going into that game or that practice, whatever we played. There was no taking time off because if they were going to invest the money and the time commitment, it better be something that is long-term for me."
A lot of things needed to change in the program, and we knew she would bring it. It wasn't intense enough. We didn't have the intensity there, we didn't have the competitiveness, the mentality. We're all having a lot more fun this year because she's coach. She knows what she's talking about; she brings a lot to the program.
--Vermont junior Lily Feldman
It was around that time -- when she was as young as 15 years old -- that she recalled contemplating, with something more than a casual curiosity, a future in coaching. She played in a national championship game with the University of Connecticut in 2003 -- losing to North Carolina -- and finished her career among the school's all-time leaders in games played. But when Lefebvre graduated in 2006, she was caught between the demise of the WUSA and the debut of WPS, so continuing her playing career wasn't an option. Instead, she took a graduate assistant position at Trinity College in Connecticut, followed by a part-time assistant position at Vermont two seasons later and a full-time role with the Catamounts in 2009. When head coach Kwame Lloyd resigned following the 2010 season, Lefebvre found herself the interim boss of a Division I program before even getting an invite to her fifth college reunion.
Vermont was 7-42-4 in Lloyd's three seasons, bottoming out in a 12-year run in which the Catamounts went 55-146-15 and finished better than sixth in the America East just once. The program's last winning season came the year before Lefebvre started high school. It wasn't a situation that lent itself to promotion from within, but Schulman and athletic director Dr. Robert Corran needed only two weeks to remove the interim label for someone a year younger than current Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden.
"We were aware of her age, but really that was never a factor for us," Schulman said. "When we sat down and talked with Kristi for the first time really in-depth about the program, and about her future role in the program and her interest in the head-coach position, Bob and I left that conversation and both kind of looked at each other and said, 'We've got our head coach right here.'"
Perhaps the only people more certain were the players themselves.
"A lot of things needed to change in the program, and we knew she would bring it," Feldman said. "It wasn't intense enough. We didn't have the intensity there, we didn't have the competitiveness, the mentality. We're all having a lot more fun this year because she's coach. She knows what she's talking about; she brings a lot to the program."
A 3-6-4 record so far this season is already the most non-losses the Catamounts have had since 2006 and includes three one-goal losses and just four home games. Lefebvre has taken the requisite coaching courses and worked at Tony DiCicco's soccer academy. She has tactical credentials. But if playing the game better than an opponent is the ultimate goal, playing it harder is the first step.
"We turned everything in training into a competition, with a winner and a loser," Lefebvre said of changing the culture. "And the losing team always had some sort of consequence that was really miserable. You didn't want to lose. And we started to see things come out of these players that we didn't even know were in there. We just basically turned losing into such a miserable experience that I think what it did was allow players to recognize moments where they could either quit or they could push through it."
There surely will be missteps and lessons learned, but early indications suggest Lefebvre has both the proper instincts and the conviction to follow them. She accumulated an address book full of coaching contacts, former teammates and friends she could have hired as an assistant coach last winter. She chose Jason Russell, a total stranger among more than 100 applicants. She wanted someone with playing experience, which Russell had in the USL and NPSL, and someone the players could relate to and trust, as they had with her. Talking to Russell, she was convinced he was the best fit, no matter the uncomfortable conversations it meant having with more familiar applicants.
"That's a good example where she doesn't take the easy way out of anything," Schulman said. "She doesn't mind tackling difficult issues head-on, and in some cases, delivering news that people may not always want to hear. That's something that's sometimes hard to find in a young head coach because they may want to be pleasing everybody all the time."
There are ways, too, in which being exactly the age she is comes in handy. Unwilling to go after leftovers, she recruited a freshman class ranked 39th in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer.
Vermont wasn't on freshman Kerry Glynn's radar when the recruiting process began, but the ease of relating to a coach just five years removed from her own playing days helped open the door, especially with the added selling point of a new soccer facility opening next fall, a new indoor turf practice facility that opened this year and a beautiful, if snow-prone, setting.
"I definitely felt a lot more comfortable talking to her," Glynn said of Lefebvre. "Some of the coaches, I got nervous to give them a call because they were a little bit intimidating. But she made it really welcoming. Every time I called her, it was like a casual conversation and it was just normal."
Indeed, Lefebvre contends she's on the same wavelength as her players on about 90 percent of subjects. It's about the only example of youthful naiveté she's likely to betray. Her experience will likely teach her that college kids always think you're just a little less with it than you believe.
"Maybe a little bit past that," Feldman said of her coach's contemporary credentials. "We don't really bring her into conversations of 'Jersey Shore' or anything."
Age catches up to all of us, it seems. The good news for Vermont is that it has a lot of ground to make up on Lefebvre.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.