It’s always a winning season when mixing motherhood and coaching   

  • Pioneer softball coach Sue Fuller congratulates her daughter Jennie Fuller after she safely slid into third base during a recent game against Hopkins Academy. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Pioneer softball coach Sue Fuller jokes with her players before their game against Hopkins. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Pioneer softball coach Sue Fuller with her daughters, Lizzie and Jennie Fuller. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Greenfield field hockey coach Erin Thayer hugs a player after the Green Wave captured the Western Mass Division II championship last fall. Thayer is the mother of twins Brayden and Riley. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/12/2017 4:46:23 PM

When households throughout Franklin County celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday, many will do so before, during or after sporting events and practices. It’s a busy time of year for athletes and coaches, with the high school season beginning to wind down toward the postseason and, eventually, a summer reprieve.

There are many fascinating stories of mothers coaching their daughters, mothers coaching with their daughters, and even mothers preparing to give birth to their sons and daughters while coaching. The full spectrum is represented in the area each and every season of the year.

Several Franklin County high school coaches shared their experiences about the mix of mothers, children and sports. Here are their stories:

Erin Thayer, Greenfield field hockey coach

The first Mother’s Day Erin Thayer ever spent with her twins was not an easy one. The Greenfield High School field hockey coach waited patiently as new duo Brayden and Riley spent the first three months of their lives in the hospital. Born in March of 2007 — just four months removed from their mom’s first year as varsity coach and first Western Mass Division II championship — the twins made their first appearance in the world at just 25 weeks.

“It was a scary situation. They were very, very early,” explained Thayer on the phone earlier this week, as daughter Riley rode a horse not far in the distance.

Ten years later, Thayer is still coaching the powerhouse Green Wave. Her twins, especially Riley, are very much a part of the program as the Thayer family prepares for another Mother’s Day in their Northfield home on Sunday. But that first season, in the fall of 2006, was the beginning of a wild ride for the soon-to-be mother of twins.

Thayer found out she was pregnant in September, right in the middle of her first season coaching the varsity squad. It wasn’t easy, but her team navigated the field hockey waters, ultimately claiming the Western Mass. title with a 2-0 win over top-seeded Smith Academy.

Things deteriorated quickly after the season ended. The team had to delay its championship banquet when Thayer was forced into bed rest, a decision she didn’t share with many people. She was limited severely by the restrictions, in hopes of prolonging the pregnancy as long as possible.

“I really didn’t tell anybody because I was trying to protect myself,” she recalled. “Eventually, a lot of my athletes came and visited. I had lost two pregnancies before and some of the kids knew of the challenges I had had prior.”

The twins came in March, after 13 weeks of bed rest. It was a long time to be cooped up. Then came the waiting game. With both babies weighing under two pounds, it took months before they were allowed to go home. Brayden was released in late May and Riley was sent home on her actual due date of June 11.

Now healthy, the 10-year-olds, who are in the fourth grade, have been there every step of the way during the rest of Thayer’s time as coach. She just capped her 12th year with another Western Mass. title.

“It’s been a great experience for my kids being around the team,” said Thayer, whose husband Scott coaches the boys’ basketball team at Pioneer Valley Regional School. “Riley always wants to be where I am — and with the girls (on the team). She loves being with the girls. Brayden, not so much, because field hockey isn’t his sport. Whatever Scott is doing, that’s where he wants to be. He’s a natural athlete.

“I don't see myself giving it up any time soon. I love it, love the game and just love being a part of it. And now that my kids are older, it’s super fun to have them around and be part of it.”

Lynn Hoeppner, former Mohawk field hockey coach

As matriarch of Franklin County’s First Family of Field Hockey, Lynn Hoeppner and her daughters, Olivia and Madeline, have a rich history together in sport.

Hoeppner played field hockey at North Adams State, ultimately landing in the coaching world, where she guided the Mohawk Trail Regional High School program. It was there that she coached both daughters, and the trio enjoyed tremendous successes in Buckland.

Olivia eventually played field hockey in college at St. Michael’s College, while Madeline took her talents to Sacred Heart University. To say field hockey plays a large role in the Hoeppner family would be a tremendous understatement.

“When they were playing — growing up and in high school — hockey was a year-round commitment, so there was always an event, always a conversation,” said Hoeppner, who currently runs the Element Athletics Field Hockey Club. “I was fortunate in that I had tremendous assistant coaches at Mohawk. I could talk about whatever I had to as coach, and the assistants could help handle the emotional aspect. I had to step away and not be a parent when I was coaching them. They called me ‘Coach’ or ‘Lynn,’ not ‘Mom,’ when we were on the field together.”

Separating the role of parent and coach came to a head for Hoeppner on one particular occasion. She was coaching a team for the Bay State Games and had to make the difficult decision to cut Madeline, only a freshman at the time, from the squad.

“It hurt her like hell, it hurt me like hell,” recalled Hoeppner of the decision. “But I needed her to understand that not everything was going to be handed to her. There was somebody who had showed me a little more, and I wound up taking that athlete as the last player on the team. I don’t regret it, but it was definitely not a decision that any of us enjoyed having to make.”

Madeline would turn out to have quite the field hockey success, despite the hiccup. The head field hockey and women’s lacrosse coach at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, for the past three years, she was just recently hired for a position that will take her across the country to Colorado Springs, Colo. Madeline will serve as events program coordinator for USA Field Hockey, the national governing body of the sport.

“She was a born coach, she really was,” said her mother. “To watch her with her girls, all I can do is sit back and smile. She really knows the technical aspect of the game. She really understands what the girls need to do. She breaks everything down. When she’s home, I really try to utilize her as much as I can. We got to spend last weekend together and to just talk about all sorts of things ... it was great.”

Olivia just had her second child, Lynn’s second grandchild, and she serves as U14 coach with the Element Club team.

“She went to school for education and does a phenomenal job with the younger girls,” Hoeppner said of Olivia. “Madeline with the older girls, Olivia with the younger girls ... something about that just seems to click with them.”

Looking back now, several years removed from her time coaching her two daughters, Lynn said all the practices, games, conversations and trips were more than worth the time the Hoeppner family invested in them.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve done, but those were times we were able to be together. I think about all the hours of time I would’ve missed being with them if I wasn’t there coaching. I knew every time I had a Hoeppner on my team, I could count on that kid.

“There’s a picture after we won the Western Mass. title (at Mohawk in 2008),” she continued. “And Madeline, she’s very tall, so she’s towering over most of the team and she’s holding up the trophy. I could look at that picture all day.”

Sue Fuller, Pioneer softball coach

For the Fuller family, it’s been a whirlwind of a softball season.

Sue Fuller took over as head varsity coach at Pioneer Valley Regional School just before the team’s first game in April. With two children on the roster — senior Lizzie and freshman Jennie — it’s been quite the family affair for the Panthers this spring.

 “It’s actually kind of funny,” explained Fuller. “Before I took the position or even applied, my first conversation was with my girls. I wanted to make sure it was something they wanted me to do more than anything. You read the articles about whether you should or shouldn’t be coaching your own kids, so there was a lot to consider.”

It wasn’t the first time Fuller has coached the two — she had worked with them during recreational softball in their younger years. Youngest daughter Kathie, 11, is in fifth grade and currently plays recreational ball.

“Coaching your own kids on a varsity team is a different experience than rec league,” admitted Fuller. “You worry about what other people think, but it’s harder on your own kids because they have to be with you 24/7. Honestly, I’m typically hardest on my own kids as opposed to anyone else — or at least I try to be. You hear the stories about coaches’ daughters being able to do what they want. I’ve never believed that.”

For Lizzie Fuller, her senior season on the softball team, and last sport-season ever at Pioneer before graduating on June 2, has been interesting, to say the least. With her mother coming on as coach, she said it’s been an enjoyable experience to close out her high school career in a unique way.

“It’s been a good experience; having her coaching is something different for me, at least in high school,” Lizzie offered. “It’s a different setting than when she coached me in elementary school. But I like how it’s all gone so far. There’s a lot of talk about softball at dinner. We’ll talk about the game, give and take advice from each other.”

“Honestly, between work and volunteer time, on top of softball, there isn’t a lot of time other than around the dinner table to rehash it all,” said Fuller with a laugh. “We do talk about it quite a bit. It’s hard to ignore it since we’re all so involved this season.”

The immediacy of it being Lizzie’s senior season has not been lost on her mother. These few months in the spring have been a special time for mother and daughter to spend every afternoon together doing something they both enjoy.

“For Lizzie, I get kind of teary-eyed once in a while thinking about the future,” her mother admitted. Lizzie will attend the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, studying athletic training.

Rian Lovett, Greenfield softball coach

Being pregnant during the season has done little to slow Rian Lovett.

The Greenfield High School softball coach gave birth to both of her children during or shortly after spring seasons. Daughter Charlie will be 3 years old in July, while son Mason will celebrate his first birthday this week.

“I had Mason right in the middle of the season last year,” said Lovett last week after her team knocked off Frontier Regional School under the lights at Veterans Memorial Field. “And I was seven or eight months pregnant with Charlie during (2014), so I’ve been very pregnant for two seasons.”

The first time around, with Charlie on the way, Lovett didn’t have to alter her season all that much.

“She was my first, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” she began. “I went into it full flourish thinking I can do anything. I didn’t have any issues really.”

That changed a bit when Mason was born last spring, she said. Due right in the heart of the postseason push, there were many more precautions necessary, in case his birth came during softball.

“I had to prepare more, get more help,” said Lovett. “I had a couple extra people helping me. Dan Smith, my sister (Taylor Lively) and my father all stepped in, because I knew they were going to have to take over for a week (when Mason was born).”

When the big day did arrive, Lovett was out only a week before returning. That included a Turners Falls High School game, though there was no chance she was going to miss that completely.

“That was tough, but I was able to Skype in for the Turners game,” she explained. “I was able to watch the whole game, and then they brought (the screen) to the huddle after the game and I was able to talk to the team afterwards.”

Lovett said Charlie and Mason have embraced life with the Wave.

“They come to all the games,” she explained. “Charlie comes to more of the night games because she’s older, but she absolutely loves it. She talks about the girls all the time. And she understands the sport and the team really well for being so young. I love that she’s involved already. She comes to our post-game conferences and even though she’s still too shy to really talk, she just likes being there.”

Lovett and husband Corey banded together to allow Rian to continue coaching the Wave. She’s in her fifth year with the program this spring, and the Wave is in a solid position to make a run at the Franklin County League title.

“He’s such a huge help,” she lauded of Corey. “I couldn’t do it without him. Last year, he had some time off and we would drive with Mason and he would take him and I’d coach the game. It was convenient. Somehow we just all manage to make it work.”

Kelly Liimatainen, Turners Falls swim coach

Winters in New England can be a difficult proposition. For Kelly Liimatainen, it’s a time to spend every day with her mother.

Liimatainen and mom Nancy Yankowski co-coach the Turners Falls High School swim team. It’s a partnership that has proven fruitful for nearly a decade, they said, when the pair started coaching together shortly after Liimatainen graduated from Keene State, following a stellar swimming career as an Owl.

“She started coaching before I did, but when (former coach) Karen Greene left, I jumped right in,” recalled Liimatainen.

It’s quality time for the two to spend together — Yankowski starts practice off, accomodating Liimatainen’s work schedule. The pair have a good system, and that leads into the running theme of who exactly is the head coach.

“That’s always been the joke — who was the head coach and who was the assistant,” Liimatainen said with a laugh. “(Yankowski) always said I was the assistant. It’s a running thing with us, but as co-coaches it works well, because we work well together. It’s nice to always be with her. A lot of people don’t get to see their mom every day.”

It’s a positive relationship, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an occasional disagreement between the mother and daughter.

“Sometimes we do disagree on the lineup of where this person or that person should be swimming,” Liimatainen explained. “Tactical things are usually where we have to have some discussions. But we know how to come to a decision and then move on.”

Yankowski has always been an advocate of Liimatainen’s swimming career, both as an athlete, and now as a co-coach. It’s a special bond that has only grown stronger, thanks to long hours and weekends at the pool.

“She’s always been super supportive,” Liimatainen said of her mom. “Both of my parents were there for every meet when I swam. My sister swam at UMass — they would drive all over the place to see us compete.”

Carrie Fydenkevez, Frontier softball coach

There was never any doubt how Carrie Fydenkevez’s children felt when they were on a softball diamond. The mother of four and Frontier Regional School softball coach spent time coaching daughters Abbie and Mae in South Deerfield — Abbie in middle school before taking the varsity job in time to lead the team when Mae was on the roster.

“For me, I always used to say that they are my biggest critics and I am their biggest fan,” Fydenkevez said about her daughters. “It’s something that is hard to put into words, to be honest. It’s something we’ll always have as part of our lives.”

“If there was an issue, they let me know there was an issue, which is fine,” said the coach mother. “But when your own kid is giving you her opinion, that always made for a lively conversation in the kitchen at home.”

Fydenkevez said she always made sure not to favor her own children, a situation she was aware of throughout their time together.

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