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SLU's women's soccer coach has built the university's most consistent program

SLU's women's soccer coach has built the university's most consistent program

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The article coach Katie Shields sent to Chris Allen arrived in a PDF file with a note, calling it a “quick read” and asking him to be prepared to discuss the content when they met a few days later.

Allen, who was then a new assistant for the St. Louis University women’s soccer team, gave it a click and found 112 pages on leadership.

“I opened it and nearly vomited,” he said. “I have to take an Advil to get through it, and it’s a quick read for her. She said ‘Read this’ and you’d better believe you had better read this.”

It was one of the first indications for Allen that Shields might approach the job in a manner different than others.

Shields, who grew up near the beach in Southern California and played soccer at Harvard, likes to read. A lot. She still gives every freshman on the team a copy of the book “Legacy,” which documents a New Zealand rugby team and what is required to overcome adversity to succeed.

“This is the culture we’re modeled after,” she said she tells them.

There are other books for other players and discussions of the reading, and Shields is always at the ready with more material and time to dissect information for Billikens who are interested.

“It’s just who I am and how I learned. It’s also my hobby and what I enjoy doing when I have free time,” she said. “With our team, it’s a way to get a common message across without it coming out of my mouth or another staff member. We want to get the message across that’s going to be consistent.”

Shields is in her eighth season at SLU, having accomplished what has been evasive at the university — a consistent NCAA postseason caliber program. The Billikens are on a five-year roll, have won three consecutive regular-season Atlantic 10 championships and will try for a third straight tournament title, starting at noon Thursday against Dayton.

The talent level is unprecedented at SLU as reflected by seven all-conference honors received this week.

This season the team has achieved a No. 20 national ranking and is No. 8 in the Ratings Percentage Index entering the postseason. But in some ways, the result is secondary to the process.

“She’s really big on our culture and core values, and that’s what makes her so different,” midfielder Hannah Friedrich said. “She’s such a good person. You can go to her for everything. We have more conversations about school and other things than soccer.”

Shields entered a program that needed some new energy. She worked one year as an assistant before starting her head coaching career with a few mediocre seasons. SLU is 77-16-7 overall and 41-3-4 in the A-10 in the last five years.

The Billikens remained at the top of the conference this season after losing the core of the previous team to graduation. They did so by adding the best freshman class in program history to a roster with few seniors.

“You have to keep getting better players, and in this freshman group we got a lot of kids we targeted,” Shields said. “Some years you hit it out of the park and others you don’t. But the idea is to always get better and that helps attract players who are starting to take us seriously who wouldn’t have five years ago.”

Shields gives Allen a lot of credit for organizing the team’s recruiting. It was his idea for coaches, including fellow assistant Bry McCarthy, to start attending games that recruits played in sports other than soccer.

They saw freshman Lyndsey Heckel’s basketball game when she scored her 1,000{sup}th{/sup} career point. They saw freshman Hannah Larson kick for her high school football team. They saw Caroline Kelly run track the same weekend she played a playoff soccer game.

“It’s a credit to Katie. She says, ‘Here are our standards. You’re brought here to meet them. Now go,’” Allen said. “She’s a surfer girl and a cool kid with a Harvard education. She checks a lot of boxes. The intellectuals on the team are challenged by Katie. The cool kids are challenged to be their best. So, she hits every member of our roster.”

Shields is from Dana Point, Calif., a coastal town in southern Orange County, where she developed her love for soccer as a goalkeeper. Her parents are longtime public school educators.

She narrowed her college choices to UCLA and Harvard, and chose the Ivy League — in part for the chance to play quickly and in part because she knew it would be a “life-changing place.” She majored in government but never gravitated toward work in the field. She just liked politics.

Instead, she worked soccer camps in the summer and decided she wanted to stay with the game after college. She had jobs at Harvard, Northwestern and UC Irvine before landing at SLU.

She laughed thinking about the mistakes she made in those early years from managing substitutions, designing practices, planning travel and on and on. She has used lessons learned from coaches in various sports. At the top of her list is Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few.

But she knows that getting to the NCAA Tournament isn’t enough. It’s time to start winning there.

“I read a lot of stuff from other coaches about how to develop culture, and it’s far from one model,” she said. “But I always tell my staff when we design a practice, we should ask ourselves if this is something we’d want to be a part of. You might not enjoy every minute, but it’s a players’ game and they should enjoy the experience.”

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