ConVal field hockey coach calls it a career

  • ConVal field hockey coach Carrie Whittemore officially retired this spring after 16 years leading the Cougar program. But she will remain with the team, serving as an assistant coach to her daughter Kelly Shirk, who was hired as the next varsity head coach. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/14/2021 12:12:03 PM

For 16 years, Carrie Whittemore patrolled the sidelines as the head coach of the ConVal field hockey team, shouting encouraging messages with a level of positivity that was infectious.

But as it turns out, in Whittemore’s final season as head coach, there were no games to be played, only practices that saw her team split into two groups based on where they lived in the district with restrictions like masks and staying six feet apart.

COVID-19 forced ConVal fall sports into a practice-only model, and if there was ever a transition point for Whittemore to hand over the reins of the program, she felt this was as good a time as any.

“I made it through last year with what COVID was,” Whittemore said. “So I thought this would be a really good time, because last year was so weird.”

Whittemore officially stepped down from the head job three months ago, one she took over when longtime coach Roberta Wilkinson did the same after Whittemore’s older daughter Kelly Shirk’s freshman year. And now, it will be Shirk who steps in to lead the Cougars, following in the footsteps of her mom and keeping the position in the family. Shirk, who played for the Cougars from 2004 to 2007 and then walked on at Shippensburg University, has assistant coaching experience in the college ranks at Saint Anselm’s and held head coaching positions in the club circuit. But this will be her first high school varsity head coaching job, after helping her mom for many years in an unofficial capacity.

And Whittemore won’t be making a clean break from the program, as she has agreed to stay on as an assistant to her daughter’s squad because it will allow her to stay involved, but not require the hours of preparation that goes into leading a varsity team.

“I still enjoy it, but it’s time for someone a little bit younger,” Whittemore said. “But I didn’t want to leave entirely. And this is like a shift, not an end, which makes it easier for me.”

For Whittemore, it couldn’t have worked out any better. She was ready to move on from the head coach role, but was hopeful that Shirk would be the one selected to take over. She knew that her daughter, who she got to coach the final two years of her high school career, wanted to become a high school head coach. And with the family history within the program, it was the ideal situation for ConVal to be her first landing spot.

“Honestly I wasn’t quite sure where I’d end up,” Shirk said. “I just knew I wanted to coach and I was looking to get into that (head coach) position eventually. It kind of worked out well.”

Before last year when only head coaches were allowed at practice, Shirk helped as much as she could.

“I loved working with the girls,” she said. Now she will get to do it on a daily basis come the fall.

In terms of what the players can expect, Shirk said they can expect more of the same.

“When it comes to the program and how we do things, not a lot will change,” she said. “The girls have the foundation with the culture that’s been created; it’s just finding ways to put my own twist on things.”

When Shirk was a freshman, Whittemore said she would arrive at practice before it ended to observe because she loved field hockey. She played the sport at ConVal, graduating in 1978, and was twice named team MVP as a junior and senior, while also being named the school’s Female Athlete of the Year as a senior.

While describing her style of play, Whittemore said “I just wanted to run down the field and score goals.”

In the first game of her varsity tenure at rival Souhegan, Whittemore’s high school coach Judie Giovannangeli was actually officiating. But like her daughter, ConVal was her choice of places to coach, as it’s safe to say she bleeds blue and gold.

“We stayed here, we played here and we coached here,” she said of herself and husband Brian.

And for more than a decade and a half, she put her stamp on the ConVal field hockey program. But it went well beyond the wins and losses.

“Carrie Whittemore is probably one of the most thoughtful human beings I’ve ever met,” said Lauren Mackey, who played for Whittemore for four years and graduated in 2013. “She was really preparing us for the next chapter of our lives.”

Mackey, who went on to play at Clark University, remembers Whittemore laminating quotes that the players would put on their field hockey bags. They’d talk about life outside of the sport and it really meant a lot as Mackey has looked back.

“She taught us to be good people first,” Mackey said.

She said the sense of family that Whittemore created made it a special time in her life. And her high school coach was always willing to go the extra mile to create opportunities to further her love of the game.

“I probably wouldn’t have played college field hockey without Coach Whit as my coach,” Mackey said.

Many years before that Whittemore coached middle school field hockey at Great Brook School and the former Peterborough Middle School, now known as South Meadow School. She did it for seven or eight years before her teaching career made her have to choose between the two. But that passion for coaching never wavered.

What she enjoyed about coaching was the impact she could make.

“Sports really helps mold you as a person, I really believe that,” Whittemore said. “It gives you things you can’t get another way.”

And she will miss many aspects of the job.

“I loved anything practice and training with the kids,” she said. “And I’ll miss the laughter.”

She coached some really good players and ones that went on to pursue a playing career in college, including her two daughters and Mackey. Shirk said playing for her mom in high school wasn’t “anything I wasn’t used to growing up.”

“The hardest thing was not to yell out mom,” Shirk joked.

The Cougars made it as far as the quarterfinals under Whittemore and a 1-0 loss to Portsmouth with a chance at the semifinals on the line is a game that still eats at her.

Over the years, both Shirk and Whittemore’s other daughter Shauna Hautanen have served as assistants, as did her husband Brian, who was the longtime coach of the ConVal wrestling team before retiring in after the 2018 season. The timing of her retirement has been a topic of discussion for a handful of years. And the stars aligned for this to be the right time.

“It’s been a great run, I’ve enjoyed it,” she said.


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