Tara Zollinger, head coach of the Shippensburg University field hockey team, went through a long road of coaching and gaining experience to eventually get the opportunity to coach the Raiders in back-to-back NCAA Division II field hockey championships.
Success has followed Zollinger in her field hockey career, beginning during her time as a player at the University of Maryland. Zollinger won two championships while at Maryland. She also was honored by receiving Maryland’s Kateri Simon Award in 2012. The award recognizes an athlete that persevered in times of adversity and displayed courage.
After graduating from Maryland, Zollinger took the next step in her career by becoming an assistant coach at Syracuse. The head coach of Syracuse’s field hockey team was Ange Bradley, an individual that pushed the Syracuse field hockey program to new heights. Bradley’s career record as a coach at Syracuse is 188-47.
Zollinger, while building a long-lasting relationship with Bradley, primarily served in two roles during her four years as an assistant coach at Syracuse.
“I was the recruiting coordinator there,” Zollinger said. “I had full responsibility and it challenged me to be able to recruit both the domestic and the international student athletes. At the beginning stages of me being there, she [Bradley] trained me to know what to look for in athletes and how to recruit and what she wanted in her student athletes there.”
Zollinger’s ability to recruit players has quickly paid dividends during her time at Shippensburg. Perhaps the best example of this is the recruitment of Argentinian sophomore Jazmin Petrantonio. Petrantonio quickly made an impact on the Raiders offensively by totaling 12 goals and 12 assists during her freshman season.
Petrantonio soared to new heights during her sophomore season while leading the Raiders to another national championship. She totaled 28 goals and six assists while setting both Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) and NCAA records. She set the record for most goals by one player in NCAA tournament history (nine) in only her sophomore season when she scored four goals in the team’s semifinal win over West Chester.
“I think for her first season, it’s a big transition,” Zollinger said. “There is an even bigger transition for her because she is coming to an entirely different country. The Argentinians play a very different style than here so I think that the first year was a bit of a transition, and then the second year going into it, she knew what it was all about. She completely bought into the culture, she has a very strong identity on the team and I think that allowed her to play a bit more to her potential and allowed her to have the season that she had.”
Zollinger credited Bradley’s support as the reason why the transition from being an assistant to a head coach was so smooth.
“I was very fortunate to have a very strong mentor in Ange Bradley,” Zollinger said. “She really took the time to develop me as a coach and a mentor for young athletes. It was critical and enabled me to be able to make the jump from being an assistant coach to a head coach. She instilled a lot of confidence in myself and it was a very great experience that definitely shaped my coaching style, my leadership style and my mentorship style, all resulting in being able to be a successful head coach.”
Zollinger said Bradley went out of her way to help mentor and teach her to become a head coach. One of the takeaways that Zollinger had from being an assistant under Bradley was that it helped her become a well-rounded coach in all aspects of the game.
“Being under her tutelage, I saw the game in a much different way,” Zollinger said. “I was always a very — and I still am — attack-minded coach, and she’s a very defensive-minded coach so I took away a lot from learning under her, and just learning about different technical components of defending and different tactical ways that you can kind of shape your team on the field in order to be a better defensive unit.”
Zollinger was helped on the defensive side of the field by having an excellent goalie in redshirt-senior Ally Mooney. Mooney wrapped up her career in Shippensburg with a third national championship, totaling a 1.20 goals against average and a 0.790 save percentage in her final season at Shippensburg.
Mooney played a big role both on and off the field for the Raiders. She was the team’s only senior — which meant being the leader of the team and helping set an example for the younger players. The team will be taking steps to help replace the leadership on the team that was lost with Mooney’s graduation.
“Really it will be telling to see who emerges as the leader for us moving into the fall,” Zollinger said. “We spend time with all of our athletes developing their leadership skills throughout the spring. Last year for example, Mooney had a leadership counsel underneath her that helped her with decisions and helped guide her and helped her keep the boat afloat. We will take the time in the spring to really continue to develop their leadership skills.”
Mooney’s leadership — combined with the mindset of focusing on the here and now that was instilled by Zollinger — helped the Raiders overcome an immense lack of experience to bring home the championship.
“I think the biggest thing that we did as a unit, staff and players alike, is just staying focused on the game that we were in and getting better,” Zollinger said. “Everything was about growth, and it’s really cool to go back and see our first game to our last game and just the immense amount of growth that the team was able to accomplish. We obviously had a goal to win the national championship, I think that’s going to be our goal every single year. The game in front of us is always the most important game of the season; that’s what we always say, so I think it’s just the commitment, the authentic, true commitment to growth.”
Throughout the season, the Raiders struggled to overcome setbacks. Part of the adversity that the team went through was its previously mentioned lack of experience. A combination of Zollinger and the team’s leadership structure helped the team to persevere.
“Persistence through adversity and belief,” Zollinger said when asked about the two things that helped the team win another national championship. “Every team is going to have a lot of ups and downs and face a lot of adversity through their season and I think the team that can persevere through that and be persistent through the adversity that they’re seeing all the while believing in their selves and the program as a whole. I think those are the teams that are really the last ones standing at the end.”
Zollinger also highly values her role on the coaches’ board of WeCOACH (formerly the Alliance of Women Coaches). Thanks to her hard work for the Raiders and in her previous post at Syracuse, she is one of just 15 coaches from all divisions of collegiate athletics who serves on the council.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be on the coaches’ board of WeCOACH, because it’s a great way to be able to continue to advocate for creating opportunities for female coaches and also keeping women in coaching,” Zollinger said. “Also, it’s a great opportunity for me with professional development, because that coaches’ counsel has access to numerous coaches across the country from different divisions and different sports. Being able to have that accessibility to them to be able to bounce ideas off them and have conversations just about coaching in general is really phenomenal, and I think it’s really important that we continue to create opportunities for females to lead. It’s a very powerful thing for women to lead women.”