One of the toughest challenges a college athlete faces is achieving closure at the conclusion of his or her playing career. When that final whistle is blown or buzzer sounds, the prospect of digesting a life void of athletic competition is coated with thoughts of moving on to a life that is more settled, or even worse, more ordinary.
Former basketball great Melanie Balcomb ’84 and All-American lacrosse player Cathy Swezey ’93 decided not to move on. Instead, they moved forward and then south—all the way to Nashville, TN. The alumnae are currently head coaches in their respective sports at Vanderbilt University.
“I never sat down and mapped this out,” said Balcomb, who recently led Vanderbilt to another Sweet 16 appearance in the 2009 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. “I didn’t plan on pursuing a coaching career. I know that I didn’t want to stop playing after college, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women then. I grew up in a coaching family, so it was a natural transition for me.”
Balcomb’s father, Alan, was a high school basketball coach for 30 years before becoming an assistant coach for Pete Carril at Princeton University. She was the prototypical “gym rat” who spent nights and weekends watching her father’s games and shooting hoops whenever she found an open basket.
Balcomb, who grew up in Cranbury, NJ, initially went to play basketball at Georgia Southern University, but wanted to return home to play at then-Trenton State College. As a Lion, she amassed 1,099 points and led her 1984 squad to a regional championship. Mika Ryan, whose first season as a head coach at the College was Balcomb’s last as a player, is not surprised that Balcomb evolved into an acclaimed sideline general.
“She was so well schooled in the fundamentals by her high school coach, Ray Clark, and her dad it seemed natural that she would gravitate to a coaching career,” noted Ryan. “Her knowledge of the game is superb, and her work habits are excellent.”
After graduation, Balcomb decided to pursue coaching and “went where the jobs were.” She spent four years on the staff at Niagara University and was also an assistant at Ohio University and Providence College. Her first head coaching position was at Ashland University in 1993, where her team posted an 18-9 record. In 1995, she took over at Xavier University and led the Musketeers to three NCAA tournaments, including an Elite 8 appearance in 2001.
Balcomb took her up-tempo style of play to Vanderbilt University in 2002. Her “team-first” mentality has helped the Commodore women’s basketball team to seven NCAA tournament appearances, while advancing to four Sweet 16s. While she maintains a high-profile, Division I women’s basketball program at Vanderbilt, Balcomb is also diligent in creating an environment that is comfortable and familiar for her players.
“I liked the family atmosphere we had at Trenton State and I’ve tried to instill that here at Vanderbilt,” said Balcomb. “We play for each other, for the love of the game, our teammates and coaches. I want the players to have a great college experience like I enjoyed, not just a great basketball experience.”
When accepting the job in 2002, Balcomb did not realize that a fellow alumna was already on staff at Vanderbilt. Swezey arrived to head the lacrosse program in 1998, and while her path to Nashville was one less traveled, she encountered a different type of challenge upon arriving. After serving as a graduate assistant for the Lions’ lacrosse and field hockey teams, Swezey spent two seasons as an assistant coach with James Madison University, an established Division I program. Upon accepting the offer to become the new head coach at Vanderbilt, however, Swezey would be taking over a Commodore program that was just two years old. Lacrosse was in its infancy in the state of Tennessee (along with most southern states), which made teaching and recruiting a more difficult undertaking.
“It was tough in the beginning because lacrosse was a sport mostly popular in the mid-Atlantic region, and that’s where the most renowned college programs were located,” said Swezey, who was also a standout field hockey player and 2006 inductee to TCNJ’s Athletic Hall of Fame. “It made it difficult to recruit and we were always the team to travel farthest for games. It took some time to convince girls to enroll in a college far away from home. We did run a lot of camps and clinics in the community to promote lacrosse, and it has really grown in Tennessee, as well as nationally. We’re right on par with other women’s sports in the South now.”
As she did during her playing days with the Lions, Swezey went on the attack in Nashville. By her third season, Vanderbilt defeated a top-10 team for the first time and finished the season ranked 13th in the country. In 2002, the Commodores were ranked 8th in the country and earned their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Swezey was named Coach of the Year by the American Lacrosse Conference.
“She has always been very motivated,” said TCNJ lacrosse and field hockey coach Sharon Pfluger ’82. “She loves competition. She sets very high goals for herself and chases those goals with tenacity, desire, and passion. I am proud to have been her coach.”
Vanderbilt reached the Final Four in 2004—the first team from the central time zone to accomplish that feat—and Nashville played host to a first round game in the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Tournament. Last season, Swezey was named ACL Coach of the Year for the second time and also was awarded Vanderbilt Coach of the Year for women’s athletics. As is stated at Vanderbilt, “The New Jersey native has transplanted a sport traditionally concentrated in the Northeast to one of the South’s most dynamic cities.”
“When I played, Sharon [Pfluger] was a great motivator,” said Swezey. “That was something I’ve taken with me as a person. She would get the most out of her athletes and always had us prepared. She was very technical and believed in repetition, and those are also traits that I’ve instilled in my coaching style.”
Balcomb and Swezey run into each other from time to time on campus and in Commodore athletic staff meetings. They both love the South and feel at home with the university’s strong emphasis on academics and the team camaraderie each coach has created in their program.
“The students are here to get an education first, and the academics are phenomenal,” Swezey said. “It’s very similar to the challenges I experienced as a student. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but when I was playing at Trenton State, I was in the process of shaping my whole career.”
Now, both Balcomb and Swezey are helping to shape the lives of others. And in the process, they to get continue walking out of locker rooms to meet the faces of fresh opponents.