When Lexi Crook ’11 looks back on her first meeting with then-new women’s lacrosse coach Karen MacCrate Henning, in the fall of 2007, she remembers one thing: that the conversation had less to do with lacrosse than with establishing the team’s identity.
“That was the first thing she said, that she got this feeling of family from us,” Crook said. “That’s what Colby women’s lacrosse is about. Before she saw us play, that’s what she was about.”
That attitude has been the the common element in each of Henning’s teams at Colby, and Henning and her players, including All-American Crook, say it’s a big reason for their success.
Their unselfishness “is just remarkable,” Henning said. “We had four seniors starting and four seniors not starting, and all of them were integral to our success. If they weren’t all onboard, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we were going to do.”
And she and the team have done a lot.
In her four years at Colby, Henning has built the Mules into a perennial contender for the NESCAC title, with a 59-18 record and four trips to the NCAA Division III tournament.
Colby won the NESCAC title in 2008 and 2009 and finished runner-up in 2010 and 2011. In 2011 the team went 15-5, reaching the final eight in the national tournament.
For Henning it’s another in a string of lacrosse successes. As an All-American player at the University of Maryland, she helped the Terrapins win national titles in 1995 and 1996. As an assistant coach at Dartmouth, Henning played a role in the Big Green’s Ivy League titles in 1998 and 1999.
Henning coached the C.W. Post University women’s lacrosse team for eight years, winning NCAA Division II national championships in 2001 and 2007.
“I always was thinking of teaching in some way. An opportunity presented itself at Dartmouth my senior year of college, and I took it,” Henning said of her career path. “It was probably the best decision I’ve made, because I’ve enjoyed pretty much every minute since.”
Henning’s record of success and her demeanor helped her earn the faith of the Mules.
“She’s unlike any coach I’ve ever had. She’s always calm and poised, and that air of confidence permeates the team. She never freaks out, and that affects the team,” said Crook, who, along with teammate Kate Pistel ’13, earned second team All-America honors from the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. “Everybody trusts her. Nobody questions her decisions.”
Those decisions are backed with knowledge. The bookshelf in Henning’s office is filled with volumes on coaching theory. There are works about coaches as diverse as John Wooden, Jerry Lynch, and Bill Parcells. Sun Tsu’s The Art of War is there as well.
In building her coaching career, Henning looked to a number of firsthand coaching models. Henning names her high school coach, Patty Murphy, and Pam McDonough, the coach of a rival high school, as coaching influences, along with Cindy Timchal at Maryland and Dartmouth head coach Amy Patton.
Henning tells her team to focus on the present rather than the destination. In a conference as tough as the NESCAC, which had five teams reach the NCAA D-III tournament this season, you have to focus on the small details in the big picture, she says. “But it’s fun. I mean, you can’t take a break. … You tend not to have any midseason lulls, because if you do, a team can sneak up on you,”
In building her team Henning looks for players she is confident will continue the team’s close-knit style. “We don’t want to bring someone in who will be destructive to that,” Henning said, “who only thinks about themselves, who comes in with a lot of individual goals. It just won’t work.”
Henning expects that the Mules will again be one of the favorites in the conference in the 2012 season. There’s such a strong foundation from the group that’s been here before that it’s easy to build upon,” she said.
“Our focus is always to be the best we can be. If that’s winning a national championship [or] the NESCAC, if it’s being five-hundred in the NESCAC—whatever that might be, we’re striving to be the best of ourselves, and the rest will take care of itself.”