At 27, women’s ice hockey head coach Hilary Witt has been hitting pucks for two decorated decades. As a student athlete at Northeastern University, she set the all-time school records for goals and points. As a senior, she was ranked among the top 10 scorers in the Eastern College Athletic Conference in every offensive category. And then, in 2000, she played with the U.S. Women’s National Team.
But when Yale hired her as an assistant coach for the women’s hockey program in 2001, Harry Rosenholtz, the other assistant coach, was a little wary.
He had seen Witt play for Northeastern. In fact, he had been coaching the Yale team against her, so he knew that she was an excellent player. But he also knew her athletic prowess might not be enough. In fact, it might keep her from relating to the players.
And then Witt came to coach her first practice.
“The very first time she got on skates and started doing things on the ice, I said to myself, ‘Wow. This kid is a coach. She’s a born coach,'” Rosenholtz said.
In the three-and-a-half years since that moment, his impression of Witt has not changed. Since taking over as head coach in 2002, Witt has guided the Bulldogs to the top of the ECAC standings. Despite losing three of their last four games, the Elis are currently tied for first place in the conference with league powerhouses Dartmouth and Harvard.
But Witt said the highest point in her time at Yale came on Nov. 12, 2004, when Yale defeated No. 6 Harvard for the first time in 20 years.
It was not just the historic Harvard-Yale rivalry, the reputation of Harvard’s ice hockey program or even the fact that Witt had played against Harvard while at Northeastern that made the win so satisfying, she said. It was the look on her seniors’ faces that told her that the Yale athletes finally understood how to win.
When she arrived in New Haven, the team needed to change a mentality of losing into a mentality of winning, Witt said.
“Over the years, people have worked very hard at this program, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” she said.
Witt has the goal-scoring mentality, Rosenholtz said.
When she first took over the team, Rosenholtz said, she told the kids, “Look. I’ve never lost at any level, not at Little League, not in high school, not in college, and I’m not about to lose here.”
The new attitude jolted the team, Kaitlin Porcaro ’03 remembered.
“All of the sudden, we had these great new drills and a hard-core attitude,” the former team captain said. “There was no excuse for not giving everything you had, and that was something the program really needed.”
Witt was used to giving ice hockey everything she had. She expects no less from her players, said Porcaro and Nicole Symington ’05.
Beginning as a rookie on the 1996-97 Northeastern team, Witt quickly made a name for herself. With 113 goals and 207 points, she shattered Northeastern records. In her senior year, she led the team in goals (30), assists (24) and points (54). And she was named a finalist for the 2000 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given yearly to the nation’s top intercollegiate women’s varsity ice hockey player.
Witt played on the U.S. Women’s National Team for the next year. The experience was rewarding, she said, but it came with a cost.
“I have a pretty bad back; I separated my shoulder a few times,” she said, ticking off her injuries. “The last straw was that I had an ankle sprain that wouldn’t go away.”
At the end of the 2001 season, she was cut from the team. While she could have continued trying out, Witt said, she did not know how she could improve her game while being injured. Unsure what to do next, she said, she could not say no when John Marchetti, Yale’s head coach at the time, called to offer her a job.
She took it. The next year, Marchetti stepped down, and she took over as head coach.
And, despite his original misgivings, Rosenholtz, for one, is glad.
“She’s got a great mind for the game; she anticipates plays probably better than any coach I’ve ever been with; she has a great instinct for her players,” he said. “She’s one of the really bright future stars of coaching in hockey.”