By Dylan Manfre
Rider field hockey has had a total of five head coaches in its 41-year history, and only one has lasted more than seven seasons.
Head Coach Lori Hussong and her husband Dan, who is her lead assistant, have transformed a program that was synonymous with losing throughout the late 1990s — with a record of 28-62 from 1995-1999 — to a dominant force over the last 20 years in the Northeast Conference (NEC) and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). No current Rider coaches have been here longer than the 20 years the Hussongs have.
Before Rider, the Hussongs had successful coaching and teaching careers at West Windsor-Plainsboro schools, 10 miles away from Rider. Ironically enough, Lori Hussong was Dan Hussong’s assistant coach when he led the boys basketball team. To no surprise, Lori Hussong was a successful field hockey coach with a high school career record of 197-52-11.
When they took the job at Rider in 2000 the Rider field hockey team was 10-28 in its last two seasons. Lori Hussong said they inherited a group of “unorganized little fireballs.” The turn of the century and control of the program also marked a new era of success for years to come.
“That year, we did finish below .500, but we actually snuck into the conference championship and the playoffs and ended up upsetting the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seed and winning the NEC championship,” Lori Hussong said over a Zoom call. “The look on their faces at the end of the season; they just totally believed in what we were doing. We said ‘This is what we’re doing,’ they didn’t ever question us. They would run through a wall for us and to see their faces at the end of the last game, that was the best feeling in the world to see that.”
Dan Hussong said the Rider teams in the few years before they took over did “all the things that losing teams do.”
The championship was the first of 20 consecutive postseason appearances, both in the MAAC and NEC, and three NEC titles. After getting her first win of the 2019 season, Lori Hussong became the 15th active Division I Head Coach with at least 250 wins.
She now has 262 wins and counting.
In 2000, they took a group of “unorganized players” and developed a winning culture. Something they have continued to do ever since. It is important to them that every player knows they are a piece of a bigger picture.
“That’s a key to coaching success,” Dan Hussong said, “is to take star athletes — and Lori would often say this to the team — everyone here was the best on their high school team, that’s why you’re here. Now you have to reinvent yourself and find your role in how you’re going to make this new team, now Division I college team, better than all the other teams that we’re going to play. You want them to feel like a star, but, corporate with the other stars [on the team]. Then you’ve got the magic.”
The magic is not created in a day or a week. It takes time for players to buy into what the Hussongs are preaching. When they are out recruiting players, they market themselves as parents who will take care of them. Sophomore midfielder Kiki van Ommeren, who hails from the Netherlands, said they made Rider feel like home.
The Hussongs host the team for a dinner at their house before the start of every semester and have the players over for a holiday party, where they played bingo and make gingerbread houses before the fall semester ends in December.
The fact that they are married and have five children of their own creates a family dynamic within the team. One of their daughters, Colby Hussong, was a player at Hofstra and an opponent of Rider on multiple occasions.
Senior defender Brittany Romanczuk said some members of the team even call Lori Hussong “Mom.”
Field hockey is always on their minds even at home, to the point where Lori Hussong said her kids ask them to “not talk about Rider field hockey at dinner.”
Telling recruits’ parents they will care for their daughter as if she is one of their own is a pitch the Hussong’s make on the recruiting trail. It’s especially difficult when recruiting international players because they’re starting a whole new life in America. When former midfielder Marion Waterkeyn ‘19 arrived in America as a freshman, the Hussongs were waiting for her at the gate like a parent picking up their child after a trip.
“When I landed in Newark [International Airport] I was totally on my own, in a new country with another language, a different culture and so on,” said Waterkeyn, who is from Belgium. “Then I suddenly saw two faces I recognized from my Skype conversations waiting for me at the exit, Dan and Lori. They picked me up from the airport and were extremely welcoming and great at putting me at ease. The next morning they helped me find my dorm and introduced me to the rest of the team. … As soon as I arrived, I already felt part of the Rider field hockey team and now I really miss it.”
Playing for the Hussongs is what made Romanczuk choose Rider when she was picking schools three years ago.
“It was very family-oriented,” Romanczuk said. “I was watching one of their games and if someone made a mistake or something they didn’t scream at them or something like that. They just let them play and then they talked to them after. The reason why I came to Rider was because of the coaches.”
“Our motto has always been ‘Give your best effort in all that you do,’ so our jobs as college coaches are not just to build the best team possible,” Lori Hussong said. “It’s to build the best person possible to when they leave the university and our team, they’re better people and we know they’re going to be successful with whatever job they pursue or whatever path they pursue.”
Romanczuk and van Ommeren both described the Hussongs as the most intense coaches they have ever had — and for good reason. It brings out the best in them.
After a 1-0 loss to Georgetown last season, the team walked off the field emotionless. They gathered their bottles and jackets, laid down their sticks wrapped in black grip tape and walked back to the goal cage.
A typical Division I field hockey game lasts 60 minutes.
Lori Hussong’s postgame speech lasted around 45 minutes.
“It shows how competitive they are and how committed they are to get the team as far as possible since they’re there for 20 years, so they really like what they’re doing, and I think also it makes the team better in a way,” van Ommeren said. “If they’re so competitive and so committed, the team will also be more committed and competitive.”
van Ommeren said she has never had a coach as competitive as Lori and Dan Hussong.
Rider doesn’t do a college yearbook anymore and there are no college superlatives, as some people remember from high school. But if there were a superlative to be offered for college coaches, Romanczuk said the Hussong’s would win “Most intense,” and “Most likely to never retire” adding she could see them coaching for another five to 10 years.
Dan Hussong said if Lori Hussong were to leave, he would go. If it were the other way around, Lori Hussong would stay put.
“We’re happy,” Dan Hussong laughed.
“As long as we’re happy doing it,” Lori Hussong said, “we’re going to keep doing it.”
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