Stephanie Nykaza is familiar with success. Fourteen state championships in 35 years can’t be ignored. In that time, she has guided New Trier to the pinnacle of Illinois field hockey.
But the latest era of Trevians field hockey is unprecedented — for Nykaza, for New Trier and for nearly anyone involved with Illinois field hockey.
The Trevians are in pursuit of their fifth straight state championship (2018-’23, no state tournament in 2020) and are prepared to send Nykaza out on top. The longtime and legendary coach is retiring following the school year, saying that she feels now is the right time for her and the program.
The Record spoke with Nykaza, a Winnetka native and New Trier alumnus, about her coaching career and what comes next. Below are excerpts from that interview.
The Record: Why do you feel now is a good time to retire?
Nykaza: I made that call probably last year. … I am retiring from teaching too. I figured I’ve been coaching for 35 years. When I retire from teaching, I’m going to retire from coaching. And I think it’s going to be a good time to do it. I’ll miss it terribly. I think I have some gas in the tank, but I think that with me exiting teaching, coaching right along with it will be good.
The Record: If you have more in the tank, why is it good to retire now?
Nykaza: I want to go out fresh. I don’t want to be a coach that just keeps hanging around for themselves. I want to be in the mix and I want to make sure I can give everything I can for (the players). It will be nice to have some younger blood coming in. I just didn’t want to be one of coaches that hung in it too long. I still feel good and when I retire, I want to feel good.
The Record: How did you get the coaching job at New Trier?
Nykaza: I played here. I started my sophomore year. I ended up playing in college. When I got out of college, I coached in some camps and played on a club team and then New Trier came to me. I could kind of work it out with my other job. That’s when the journey began. Now, a bit older and 35 years later, I’m still here. It’s been a great run. That’s what I want. To go out feeling good about New Trier and the program and all the accomplishments these girls have made is so important.
The Record: You were not a teacher at first, how did you get into it?
Nykaza: I’m retiring 29 years in. The first years as a head coach I was not a teacher. … I knew when I started coaching at New Trier that wow the parents are right, I’m a teacher at heart. That was 35 years ago. I am 58 now. I was young. Six years later, I started teaching (kinetic wellness) and realized how much I liked it. The transition really easy for me.
The Record: What made it an easy transition?
Nykaza: I worked in corporate fitness. … I am very big into physical fitness. I got into cardiac rehab and didn’t love it. Working with teenagers was my love. The energy was good for me. I work well in this kind of setting.
The Record: Since your playing days and early days of coaching, how has the sport changed?
Nykaza: It’s changed so much. There was a celebration for me (Oct. 11) and a lot of players from my first team were there who live in the community. They were shocked (at how much it’s changed). They hadn’t been to a game since. It’s more 3D, more up in the air now. Before it was more on the ground. The skill these girls have to have has progressed. It’s shocking. I’ve rolled with the times. When we get older players coming in, from when I played until now and wow, it’s changed. But hasn’t everything? Bigger, better, faster ,stronger. The game of field hockey has definitely progressed from the international level down to the high school level.
The Record: Do you have retirement plans? Are you going to stay involved with the game?
Nykaza: We have plans of things we’re going to do. My husband is semi-retired. I’m pretty active still. … I’ll maybe start running camps and clinics. I know how to run them and would help the game of field hockey in Illinois. I know here at New Trier, if (coach Brittany Romano) and other coaches need help, I’ll always be around to help them. … But I’m looking forward to being out of daily grind and being on a bell schedule. It’s been great for me, but it’s time. For coaching, I’m OK with it. I feel like I’m stepping out at a great time. The program is in a great space. That was my big goal when I retired. My No. 1 goal is to make sure we had the staff to keep it running.
The Record: All the championships, all the successes, how did you do it?
Nykaza: You think about it more the older you get. What do you do, what is it? There are a lot of layers to that. Yes, knowledge of the sport does help — that I have been a teacher and to be able to progressively lay things out in a certain system so they understand. … I actually think thing for me the magic is that you show them that you care. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. Show them you care about them. I want my players to want to play for me, play for New Trier. I think that’s the key: showing that you care and being passionate.
I think about field hockey a lot. You can’t be a good head coach if you don’t. It’s not just X’s and O’s. It’s a lot about them getting along and being passionate about what they’re doing. To me that’s the most important thing: passion, perseverance, and to want to play and want to play hard. And that’s what I’ve loved about it, to watch them progress. I pride myself on that.
I’m very proud of New Trier and how they backed me up for all these years to do what we’ve done. And I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the girls. It’s been a great run. I loved being the field hockey coach for 35 years. The administration and athletic department have supported me 100 percent. We have wonderful parents who have backed up the program. And my coaches, oh gosh, they have been great. I’m proud to be a Trevian.
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