No matter the student-athlete, the sport or the school, every student-athlete faces a final day when they place on their school’s uniform and colors. The moment completes a long journey with a close-knit group, competing for championships and successes on the field or court.
For some student-athletes, though, their journey with the sport they love can continue in other ways. Among many of the teams within Salisbury University Athletics, student-athletes do so by returning to the sidelines like their head coaches before them.
Coaching has been taken up by a number of former student-athletes among the fall SU varsity sports.
“I’ve had an idea for a long time that I wanted to be coaching soccer at some level, some way,” SU men’s soccer assistant coach Colby Fell said. “This is a great opportunity for me to kind of get my feet wet in the coaching world, potentially move on in the future and see where this opportunity takes me.”
Fell made the move to the sidelines this season to stay alongside his former comrades. The former Sea Gull center back tallied one goal and two assists across 27 career starts and 32 overall appearances.
After playing for SU men’s soccer head coach Alex Hargrove the last two seasons, Fell now stands beside one of his mentors, approaching the game he loves in a different way. Hargrove made the same move as well after his playing days, continuing to don the maroon and gold after his playing career came to a close.
“It’s always difficult for a coach to make that transition,” Hargrove said. “They want to be out on the field. Colby has done a tremendous job. He’s a guy who is light-years ahead of where most 22-year-olds would be in terms of their maturity and understanding of the game.”
Hargrove said that while Fell can explore his own aspirations of coaching, his spot on the staff also fills a much-needed role for them in the performance aspect of the soccer program. The defensive experience that Fell brings to the current players is also a huge bonus.
Out on the volleyball court, former Sea Gull setter Alexis Howatt made the same choice as Fell. After finishing her playing career last fall, the Timonium, Md. native extended her time working in Maggs Physical Activities Center by joining head coach Justin Turco on the sidelines.
Howatt brings in her expertise from the 90 matches and 265 sets that she has appeared in throughout her career. Tallying 1,585 career assists, the now-SU assistant coach ranks eighth all-time in program history for assists.
Unlike Fell, Howatt was not always thinking about coaching. It was kind of a perfect storm that provided her the role.
“It just kind of worked out this way,” Howatt said. “I’m staying the extra semester, and I wanted to be involved. It worked out that Turco wanted more help, so I was like, ‘I would love to stay involved.’ It keeps me in the gym with the girls. It keeps me involved with the school, and it keeps me involved with volleyball, which I love.”
No matter if dreams of coaching ventures are on the individual’s mind, a core result of taking a coaching position is the ability to impact the program that the student-athlete had to leave behind on Senior Day of their playing career.
It is not a quick, easy switch mentally, like many might think. The central change comes with taking the role while still having peers playing on the team.
“It’s funny,” Fell laughed. “They like to call me ‘Coach.’ I try to tell them not to call me ‘Coach,’ but that just eggs them on even more.”
SU men’s soccer senior defender Cam Wilson said that it took some adjusting in order to get used to having one of his close friends as his coach all of a sudden. Wilson and Fell spent the last few years together on the soccer pitch playing for Community College of Baltimore County Essex and then at Salisbury.
The same old relationships remain, even without these former athletes on the field. Instead, now Fell can be found leading stretches after practices and games or warming substitutes on the side before they enter a match.
“I love being on this side of the team,” Fell said. “I get to hear some interesting conversations from both sides. I’m in an interesting situation where I live with a couple players. I’m still ‘boys’ with all of them.”
One season after hanging up her uniform, Howatt also has those relationships intact. It was a big reason why she returned in the first place.
“For a majority of them, I have played with them for at least three years, if not less or more,” Howatt said. “They did get guidelines on how I’m a coach now. I can’t really be friendly as much with them, but we’re a family to begin with. I’m still part of that family whether I’m a coach or a player."
“We’re all still really close, and I just love being there for them. Honestly, that’s why I came back as a coach, to help the girls and to make their experience even better.”
Alongside reforming those bonds on the court with her peers, Howatt said that the expectations certainly go higher when it comes to coaching. However, she said it is something that she expected and encountered as a team captain during her senior year.
Each assistant coach said that they have learned new aspects of their roles along the way from their respective head coaches.
“Enjoy the moments when they aren’t so easy,” Fell said. “You can’t take yourself or things too seriously. There have to be times where you have to sit back and take a laugh at some of the more stupid things.”
Continuing positive vibes also is a key tactic on the volleyball court in order to facilitate chemistry. That energy is important coming from the sidelines.
“Always be encouraging, even when they’re not doing well,” Howatt said. “That’s just volleyball, too. You have to have a good mental state to succeed. It’s coming from me as an old teammate. They might listen to me better sometimes on a given day, maybe.”
By sticking with their old teams, it adds another voice for the next generation of Sea Gulls coming forward looking to win championships. Whether looking to coach or not, former student-athletes like Fell and Howatt fit a needed role for the teams across SU Athletics.
That endless cycle continues every semester as these players look to give back to the programs that helped raise them through the collegiate ranks.
By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU assistant volleyball coach Alexis Howatt calls out to the Sea Gulls during a match. (Olivia Rowland/Emma Reider images).