BRANFORD >> Branford field hockey coach Cathy McGuirk, 71 and still having fun in her 40th season as the Hornets’ coach, has developed legendary status in Connecticut field hockey with a 526-129-64-10 record (not counting Tuesday’s game with Amity) and 10 CIAC Class M state titles.
And she blames it all on John McGuirk — her soulmate, husband (they recently celebrated their 48th anniversary) and assistant coach the past 37 years.
“If it wasn’t for John, I might have never been the field hockey coach at Branford,” Cathy McGuirk said. “When Virginia Moessmang, who started the program, decided to step down after the 1976 season I thought about doing it. I played field hockey but I never coached before and wasn’t sure if I could do it.
“John said try it. He said the opportunity is there and you’ll regret it if you don’t at least give it a chance. He was confident I could handle it, and I really wanted to do it, so in the summer of 1977 I took the job.”
Cathy McGuirk certainly had field hockey experience.
She played at the now-defunct Central Catholic High in Norwalk and went on to play four seasons at Southern Connecticut State where she graduated in 1967. The Owls had a small team in those days and only played six or seven games a season. John McGuirk is quick to point out that as the Owls’ goalie she never allowed a goal in her college career.
“When the field hockey position came up, I said just do it,” John McGuirk, 73, said. “Back then we had no thoughts about how long she would do it, I just thought she would be good at it.
“Cathy is a people person and that’s one of her biggest strengths. She is great with kids, uses her teaching ability to get them to achieve at a high level and she always looks for something positive to say.”
Speaking of achieving at a high level, Cathy McGuirk’s consistent success has been validated by inductions into the Branford Sports Hall of Fame, Southern Connecticut State Hall of Fame and Connecticut Field Hockey Hall of Fame. She was also National High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1992 and was also the Connecticut Coaches High School Coach of the Year for Class M field hockey.
“Cathy has the background as a physical education teacher in the Branford middle school system and John was a long-time history teacher (North Branford High),” said Robin McColl Axtell, a 17-year Branford field hockey assistant who also played for Cathy McGuirk her first season as coach in 1977. “They both bring that teaching expertise to the field.
“Fundamentals are important to her with repetitions of skill drills a part of practice. It’s incredible and exciting to see her coaching in her 40th season. I’m so proud of her.”
The start of McGuirk’s 40th season has been impressive going 4-0 (not including Tuesday’s game with Amity) with wins over three of the Southern Connecticut Conference’s top teams — Lauralton Hall (won 2-1 in OT), Cheshire (1-0 win) and Hand (2-1 win).
Branford captains Alanna Grimm and Keira Integlia believe Cathy McGuirk’s experience, love of the sport and her ability to connect with her players are her top strengths as a coach.
“Mrs. McGuirk is amazing,” Grimm said. “She has been coaching so long that she knows so much about the sport and passes that knowledge on to her players. She gives us pep talks and gets us pumped up before every game. She’s a legend in the sport and always energizes us.”
What stands out for Integlia is Cathy McGuirk’s motto “tradition never graduates.”
“Mrs. McGuirk has meant everything to the Branford field hockey program,” Integlia said. “She has poured her heart and soul into this program to make it the best that it could be and has succeeded in doing that. Her tremendous amount of time and effort put into this program landed her a spot in the Branford Sports Hall of Fame and has the made the Branford field hockey team a force to be reckoned with.
“I believe that her ability to connect with her players at a personal level, and her ability to take the time to share and teach life lessons to the team, instead of strictly field hockey all the time, is what really separates her from other coaches. I also believe that her dedication and love for the sport is what has led to her long time success.”
Cathy McGuirk said she has a lot of fond memories but one that sticks out is winning her first Class M state championship in 1985.
“Watching the development of the kids, the hard work they put into it to get to that point, was special,” Cathy McGuirk said. “It was a dream come true and then to do it 10 times is something special.
“But every team is special. Even when there were down years and you don’t have the athletes, it wasn’t about wins or losses. It was about achievement and working hard to do the best you can. Every team I have had has worked hard and achieved what they were capable of achieving.”
Cathy McGuirk has no plans of slowing down or stepping down as coach.
“I don’t plan on retiring any time soon, John and I are still having a lot of fun doing this,” Cathy McGuirk said. “It keeps us young. Experience means a lot but I’ve made a lot of mistakes, loads of mistakes, and we still make mistakes. But the challenge is to overcome those mistakes.
“The important thing for me is for my players to have fun and feel good about themselves. It’s about life lessons and creating the camaraderie that goes with it.”