Rosemary Chesney, asst. sports editor
Coaches can make or break a team. Despite finishing third in their conference, Berry women’s soccer team competed last season without an assistant coach to head Coach Kathy Brown. During summer, Stephen Lee accepted the position of assistant women’s soccer coach aiming to usher in another victorious season, while building the family culture among the players.
New to Berry College in 2020, Brown replaced the women’s longtime head soccer coach, Lorenzo Canalis, and Assistant Coach, Eric Gentilello. At the start of the 2020 season, Wezley Barnard coached the women’s soccer team as Brown’s assistant. However, Barnard left Berry after accepting a position as Director of Goalkeeping at North Carolina FC Youth, missing Berry’s 2020 regular conference and tournament play.
“Coach Barnard brought good things to the program, but we didn’t really get to see the fruits of that,” senior team captain Vanessa Belanger said. “A big thing with Coach Lee is that he’s really excited to be at Berry and looking to stay for a while. He’s really bought into Berry and wants to be a part of our team culture, which is really cool.”
Beginning his soccer career in high school, Lee transitioned to collegiate level competition, playing striker for Toccoa Falls College. Lee then coached two years of men’s soccer at the division two school Emannuel college and coached one year at Truett McConnell University, before making the transition to women’s soccer at Berry. Originally from Ga., Lee remembered Berry from prior soccer recruiting and undertook the assistant coaching position in the summer of 2021.
“I chose Berry because culture is important to me,” Lee said. “Head coach, Kathy Brown runs a very good positive team which was attractive to me. Plus, Berry is an amazing environment to play sports and be supported by the campus.”
Lee’s day-to-day job specifics during the season include planning practices, booking hotels and privately training goalkeepers. The majority of his job, however, consists of recruiting future players outside the regular season. Belanger said that while Brown managed the team very well alone during the season prior, small things that could’ve slipped by are now caught by Lee.
Throughout his four years of coaching collegiate-level soccer since 2017 Lee has specialized in training goal keepers. He individually trains goalkeeper Maggie Jones as well as aspiring goalkeeper Ashleigh Dunlop twice a week before regular practice. While increasing skills are important to Lee, the most important part of training sessions to him are the relationships formed between teammates and coaches.
“I think the biggest thing Coach Lee brings is the level of confidence he has in us,” Jones said. “I distinctly remembering training sessions when I’ve been really down on myself, and he told me to ‘forget about that’ and that I was still a really great field player. It’s amazing having that confidence as a coach for your players.”
With only three players not returning from the 2020 soccer season, the 2021 women’s soccer team contains a unique combination of many experienced players and strong incoming freshmen players. Lee aspires to finish this season as one of the top three teams of the Conference and have a chance at winning the NCAA championship.
While Lee hopes to secure a conference championship for Berry during his coaching career, fostering lifelong relationships and developing character are his primary reasons for coaching women’s soccer. Alongside Brown, Lee aims to continue promoting a ‘family’ culture among the team.
“Relationships are the most important part [of soccer] to me because they last forever,” Lee said. “Everyone reaches a point where they stop playing soccer at some level. It’s important to me that the relationships they form with each other and with me set them up to be successful in life.”
Despite training Dunlop as the backup goalkeeper, Lee anticipates goalkeeping challenges this season if Jones were to be injured, as she is the sole experienced goal keeper. Belanger also predicts potential challenges for the team playing a full season after playing a shortened 2020 season, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Staying healthy is an extremely important discipline with a longer season, Belanger said.
“[Coach Lee] brings a lot of discipline and energy to the program,” Belanger said. “[Discipline] provides structure for us and if you can stay disciplined off the field, you’re more likely to stay disciplined on the field.”