St. Dom's coach O'Brien balances being mom
Mother-daughter relationships can be complicated, especially when Mom is the coach of her daughter's high school team. Sometimes it calls for tough love.
Ten days before Mother's Day, Michele Cucci O'Brien benched her daughter, the team's leading scorer, during a St. Dominic girls lacrosse game. Mom gets teary-eyed at the re-telling. Daughter Katie laughs it off.
"We were down a couple of players and Katie questioned why we had in goal," Michele O'Brien said, recalling a tough loss to Glen Cove. "Katie's very knowledgeable, but there's never going to be a player that questions what the coach is doing.
"After halftime, they went up by three or four goals and now we have to make a change and we flip goalies. Katie turned around and made a comment like, 'It's about time she listened to me.' There were about 22 minutes left in the game. She was running the table on the field . They couldn't stop her, but I benched her for the rest of the game," Michele said.
"Believe me, there was nothing I wanted more to do than beat Glen Cove. But like I told my team, 'the lessons that you learned today you'll never forget for the rest of your life. And hopefully you understand why I did what I did.' We lost, 18-16."
This is no ordinary coach-player relationship. It probably isn't a typical mother-daughter relationship, either.
"It's definitely hard playing for your mom," said Katie, who has played four years for her mother in varsity basketball and lacrosse. "There were some rough times, but we got through it."
Katie, a senior, leads the CHSAA in points (122) and goals (88) and has earned a lacrosse scholarship to Molloy College in Rockville Centre.
"If she wasn't my mom, I could appreciate her coaching more," said Katie, who acknowleged the Glen Cove incident with a teenager's shrug of remorse and said she's also been kicked out of basketball practice several times for insubordination, which translates into mouthing off to the coach.
"I'm a wiseass. She says 'Do a sprint' and I say, 'No.' We're kind of the same person. We're both very outgoing and we're stubborn. We bump heads a lot," Katie said. "She's a tough coach and she's definitely tougher on me."
Truth be told, Katie is tough on her mother, too. She chides Michele, a highly successful basketball coach of more than 20 years, for her lack of lacrosse knowledge. Michele started coaching lacrosse when Katie was a freshman.
Katie related that Michele sometimes calls out basketball plays on the lacrosse field and her daughter will yell, " 'We don't have that play!' Or she'll yell something and I'll talk back to her and be sarcastic. And the ref will be like, 'You talk back to the coach like that?' And I'll be like, 'No, that's my mom.' "
No wonder Michele said coaching her daughter "was probably the hardest four years of my life. She challenged me almost every single second that she was here. She's a very tough kid. It definitely was a challenge coaching her. But I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. It was absolutely worth the effort, the time and the energy because you never get this time back."
Katie concurred. "She runs great practices and she motivates us. She ties in life's lessons. It's not just 'shoot a lacrosse ball' or 'shoot a basketball.' She teaches us life's lessons. She's a great coach.''
Michele insisted that Katie play basketball for her in high school but said her daughter's heart was never in that sport despite her considerable talent. "I don't think she had as much fun in basketball," Michele said. "She played more for me than she did for herself."
Lacrosse is another story. Michele demonstrated a mother's right to brag when she noted that on April 28, St. Dominic defeated Our Lady of Mercy for the first time in six years, 17-15, with Katie scoring eight goals and registering four assists. "That was a great moment for Katie. She completely dominated," Michele said.
In turn, Katie recalled the moment after last year's league championship game when the team poured water on their coach. "I jumped on her," Katie said. "She was crying. The whole car ride home we talked about the game."
Now, with her high school career winding down and the days spent on the sidelines with her mother dwindling to a precious few, there's one more challenge. Katie, an accomplished model who has done photo shoots for Macy's and Seventeen magazine, has an all-day shoot for American Eagle scheduled for Tuesday. It's the day before St. Dominic will play to defend its league championship.
"She was screaming when she got the news and she was so excited," Michele said of the modeling job. "But my policy is that if you don't practice the day before a game, you don't start and you may not play. She has it in her mind that she's going to the photo shoot because this is also what she loves to do. Now as a coach and a parent, you have to make a decision."
It's a tough one, compounded by family ties and the reality that Katie is the team's best scorer.
"Maybe we'll have practice later to accommodate her. Or maybe I'll throw it out to the team and ask them what I should do," Michele said. "That's the next obstacle. She definitely will not start. But she will probably play."
Not exactly a Hallmark moment, but nice compromise, Mom.