March 12, 2010

What a Legendary Coach Meant to ThemGone, but always thereAnd there was the time Coach Fifield

— ANGEL ELDERKIN

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It wasn’t the way his players always saw him, a huge smile on his face, joy radiating from within. But Saturday was the day Gary Fifield returned to the University of Southern Maine and accepted the plaudits for a career full of wins but more than that, impressions made on young women.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Gary Fifield, who retired before this season as the University of Southern Maine women’s basketball coach, receives a hug Saturday from Destiny Demo, one of his former players.

John Ewing/Staff photographer

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Position: Guard, 1994-99

Hometown: East Providence, R.I.

''When I get my first Division I coaching job, I'm calling him. I've already got the package put together. He'll work five months. He won't have to go on the road and recruit, he won't even have to go to games. I want him for my practices. You know, he recruited me and then wrote a letter saying he got the point guard he wanted but I could still try out. I was so mad. I came to USM just to show him I could play.''

Today: Assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Virginia.KATIE SIBLEY

Position: Point guard, 2003-07

Hometown: Boothbay

''I remember telling my mother as a sophomore in high school, when recruiting letters started coming in, that I was going to USM anyway. It's a pretty amazing thing for a coach and a program to have such an impact that an athlete wouldn't think of going anywhere else.''

Career highlights: Played on two Division III Final Four teams (2005, 2006)

Today: First-year law student at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.MANDY KING

Position: Point guard, 1993-98; All-Little East Conference, All-Eastern College Athletic Conference

Hometown: Dexter

''I had my heart set on playing Division I, then tore my ACL and all the interest went away. (Fifield) was still there for me. It's so ironic. I fought the idea of going to USM for a long time and it turned out to be the best decision. I had my dreams, just like my teammates, and he gave us the power to realize them.

Today: Women's basketball coach at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va.

GORHAM — Angel Elderkin listened to the news that chills. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Elderkin sat at her computer keyboard, tapping out the news to her college coach, the person she turned to in good times and bad. She hit the send button. Within seconds, or so it seemed, Elderkin's phone rang.

Gary Fifield was calling. Never mind that she was more a role player than a star for him at the University of Southern Maine. Never mind that it had been almost 10 years since she last heard that gruff voice telling her how to play her position.

He was always a man of few words but that didn't matter on this particular day.

''He was there, for me or anyone who ever played for him,'' said Elderkin. ''He's always there.''

That's why there was more emotion than usual in Hill Gymnasium on Saturday. Two months after his announcement that he was retiring after 21 astonishingly successful seasons of coaching, Fifield was back on the court, catching the tributes tossed his way.

First there were the speeches during halftime of the Keene State-USM women's game. More personal talk followed at a postgame reception. He got the traditional rocking chair. Best seats to a Celtics game. Free rounds of golf at a Maine resort.

Better yet, he got some love from the women who still hear his voice in their minds when they face life's big and little challenges.

''I've already forgotten how many games we won,'' said Elderkin. ''It's more how he influenced who we are today.''

She spoke from her office at the University of Virginia, where she is the second assistant to Coach Deb Ryan. Before that, Elderkin worked on Pat Summit's staff at Tennessee, breaking down film. It was Summit who picked up the phone and called Ryan to suggest she consider Elderkin.

Saturday, 19th-ranked Virginia beat East Carolina, 80-67. Elderkin sent Fifield an e-mail. Wish I could make it, coach. You'll understand.

Fifield's teams won more than eight of every 10 games they played. The precise record is 541 victories and 86 defeats over 21 seasons. The streak of 20-win seasons that was started by Doc Costello and continued under Fifield stands at 28. Twenty trips to the NCAA tournament. That Fifield teams played in three games for the NCAA Division III national championship and lost is the disappointment shared by his players.

''Behind the foot-stomping and the flailing arms and the loud voice was a coach who cared about us as people,'' said Shannon Kynoch of South Burlington, Vt. She graduated last spring and is an assistant coach at St. Michael's College. ''I hit some pretty serious bumps in the road (away from basketball) and he didn't turn his back on me.''

He recruited women who hated to lose and challenged them daily.

''I didn't use any filters when I talked to him,'' said Mandy King, now the head women's coach at Washington and Lee University. One of Fifield's former point guards had a break in her schedule and wanted to come north but a recruiting trip intervened. She called Fifield on Friday. Sorry, Coach, but you'll understand.

Katie Sibley, a first-year student at Appalachian School of Law in tiny Grundy, Va., was asked if there was anything she would say to her coach now, that she couldn't when she played.

''Fifield and I had a great coach/point guard relationship, meaning that we didn't really hold back what we were thinking about the game, practice, or even each other,'' responded Sibley in an e-mail. ''I'm pretty sure whatever I had to say to him I've already said.''

Lori Towle drove north from the Boston area with her two young children. She played from 1992 to 1996 after transferring from Bowdoin College. ''I know you're supposed to base your decisions on academics, not sports, but I wanted to play for Gary.

''He created a system, he believed in the system and he got us to believe in the system. He organized practices down to the last minute.

''He taught us to be good people. There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not feeling the impact he had on me.''

Susan Ware, now head of her family's Maritime Energy business in midcoast Maine, said it another way. ''In the big picture it's not the wins and losses. It's the man.''

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.comJOANNA BROWN-CORMIER

Position: Center, 1993-98; Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-American

Hometown: York

''Sometimes we wondered how he could relate to women our age. His only child was a son. But all his players became his daughters. He knew how to motivate. We're playing Salem State and he pulls me aside. 'Jo, their coach told me (one of Salem State's players) didn't understand why people were saying you were so good.' I got angry but didn't say anything. I scored 23 points that game.''

Today: Stay-at-home mom of a 2-year-old daughter and infant son, living in the Boston area.

LAURA PATE

Position: Forward, 1989-91; Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-American

Hometown: Biddeford

''I almost quit school to get a job and help take care of my niece. You're talking about young 20-year-old girls who really don't know a lot about life. We see our coaches more than we see our parents in college. They're your guidance counselor, your friend, your confidant and your coach. Gary talked to me and I stayed in school. My way to manage life was to play basketball and he helped me do that.''

Today: Real estate appraiser, business owner, living in Avon.

ASHLEY MARBLE

Position: Forward, 2004-2007; D3hoops.com Player of the Year, WBCA All-American

Hometown: Topsfield

''Coach is not a man of words, but he was always there and sometimes that's all you needed. At times he was a friend and at times we butted heads. Basketball was my life and because he was as committed, I was able to give 100 percent. He's a mentor.''

Today: Head coach of USM's club volleyball team and assistant women's basketball coach at St. Joseph's College.

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Additional Photos

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STAFF PHOTO BY JACK MILTON -- Tuesday, March 17, 1998 -- USM basketball Mandy King

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Photo by John Ewing/staff photographer... Saturday, December 6, 2008....Former USM basketball player Laura Pate was on hand for the ceremonies honoring the school's former head basketball coach, Gary Fifield.

John Ewing

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STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN EWING -- Tuesday, March 11, 1997 -- USM basketball player Joanna Brown

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Staff photo by {John Patriquin}:Tuesday, March 20, 2007. USM-Gorham basketball player Ashley Marble has had one of the most prolific athletic careers of any player at any Maine college.



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