A pair of victories away from setting a new program high for wins over a ten-year span, head coach Julie Swiney has helped to steady Slippery Rock University’s field hockey program on the field and, more importantly, in the classroom.
The squad has earned the highest team grade point average (GPA) out of any in Division II six times , in Swiney’s nine seasons at the helm. In the three years that it didn’t finish first in that academic category, the Green and White ranked either second or third. The team has also had the loftiest GPA in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference seven years running.
Along with the team accolade, Swiney has watched her student-athletes collect 172 National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) National Academic Squad honors. Her players have been NFHCA Scholars of Distinction 37 times.
Including midfielder Abby McKay and goalie Maddie Murphy, both juniors, and sophomores Emily Polakovsky and Jessie Trube, eight Rock players were named Scholars of Distinction last season.
As a head coach, Swiney said her philosophy is built around creating an environment with a high level of both academic achievement and competition. She says her mindset of holding such a standard in the classroom stems from her time assistant coaching at Washington & Jefferson College and Amherst College.
“I talk about that through the recruiting process and, once they’re here, we […] give them guidance, track how they’re doing, and help find resources if they need them,” Swiney said.
The priority naturally trickles to her players.
“It’s kind of our team culture,” said senior midfielder Jordan Barnes. “We really encourage girls to meet their professors one-on-one to talk and go to various study tables or tutors if they feel like they need the extra help.”
As hard as it is for non-athletes to balance their workload, it becomes increasingly difficult when a student finishes class for the day and has to lace up cleats and throw on a uniform.
“I think that it’s a challenge, for sure, to really be a high-achieving student and do the sport,” Swiney said. “I think they trade off a lot of their social opportunities and involvement off of campus because of the workload.”
“It can be pretty challenging at times, but our coach is really supportive of us putting our academics first,” said Barnes, who maintains a 3.79 GPA. “She holds us accountable from the start of freshman year. We have to send various things into her and school always comes before field hockey.”
Swiney herself started for three years at Division I William and Mary. Though she contributed to the Tribe’s top-20 national ranking each of those three seasons, she said that her school was a very academic-minded one.
In her office, with sun shining through the window beside her, Swiney became a recruiter for a moment.
“We all know most field hockey players aren’t going to become professional field hockey players, so we make sure that this is just a part of a whole package,” Swiney said. “You’re going to be able to do well in school and also have a great experience with your team. It’s going to make you a better person in life and whatever career path you choose.”
Swiney mentioned that the team has a couple of recruits joining the team next year that could have played in Division I but wanted to study in a pre-physician’s assistant major, which coaches at the higher level told them that they couldn’t do.
“We have a lot of girls in really challenging majors and those girls definitely have a harder time with it, but it’s doable because we’ve had a lot of success in exercise science and pre-PT and some of those majors heavy in labs and sciences,” Swiney said.
Barnes spoke for her fellow upperclassmen about what it means for them to be acknowledged for their grades as well as on the field.
“We do put in a lot of hours off the field working together. We do have rigorous schedules, so to maintain a [team] GPA, as high as it is, is something I take a lot of pride in and I’m glad my teammates are on the same page,” Barnes said.
Being the leader, Swiney explained that she’s been only a small part of the success and that, at the end of the day, her players are the ones that put in the hours of studying and building relationships with professors.
“Ever since I got here, I’ve been trying to maintain a competitive program,” Swiney said. “To be able to have a program out west where there’s not a lot of field hockey, it means a lot to be able to provide consistency to this Slippery Rock field hockey family.