Fourth of July weekend and the Dog Days of summer are usually a time for kicking back and relaxing.
Not for recently hired Spaulding athletic director Natalie Soffen.
The Barre native and 2000 Crimson Tide graduate was hard at work Monday morning while settling into her new role. Soffen was a three-sport athlete at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., and she served as assistant basketball coach for four years and head coach for five years at her college alma mater. She departed in 2012 and returned to Vermont to take over as AD at Peoples Academy. A few months ago Soffen found out about the Spaulding job opening and threw her hat in the ring.
Following a successful interview with Spaulding’s hiring committee, and another productive meeting with the principal and superintendent, Soffen was officially given the green light by the school board on June 13. She replaces Pat Merriam, who spent 11 years at the Granite City school before accepting the AD position at Essex. Prior to Merriam’s tenure, Shawn Woods was the Crimson Tide AD for over two decades.
Soffen’s familiarity with coaching and administrative duties has helped her get up to speed quickly during everyone else’s summer vacation. And in an era where the coaches’ certification process is updated annually, she’s an old hand at learning the ropes.
Soffen took the time Monday to answer a few questions about her athletic background and how high school athletics have changed since her varsity days.
TA: When you graduated from Spaulding in 2000, that was a serious sports hotbed. Between Mary Zider and Sophie Leclerc, and then guys like David Ball and Mike Perez and Michael Blouin, in some ways do you feel like those were glory days for Spaulding athletics?
Soffen: “You list all those people and it brings back a lot of great memories and a lot of pride. Every time I go in the gym, I look at the 1999 softball banner that I was a part of.”
TA: So you played basketball and softball in high school. And then you actually played soccer at Nichols as well, right?
Soffen: “I did my junior year. I had never played soccer before, and one of my roommates was on the soccer team and I was there early working with the equipment manager for the fall. They had just hired a new coach and they were like, ‘Natalie, we don’t have a goalie. You’re a catcher, you must have really good hands. Do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Why not?’ And that year we won the conference. Hopefully if I can tell my story about that to some of the kids here, they’d be willing to try a new sport that they’ve never played before and have some success within it.”
TA: Do you think because kids specialize in sports so early that they’re a little more reluctant to try out something new nowadays?
Soffen: “Sure. I do think that they’re trying to stay on top of their specified sport and they feel like they need to be on top of that game all year-round. So there’s some reluctance to try new sports. Or if they did three sports in middle school, they want to just focus on one sport in high school. I do see a lot of that. But at PA I didn’t see too much of that. I actually saw a lot of kids breaking out and being more of a well-rounded student-athlete playing all seasons. Athletes like Louis Angione played three sports, and he had success in all of them.”
TA: Comparing Spaulding to Peoples, everyone knows that PA has a soccer reputation. And you could say Spaulding has a hockey reputation. Do you see some similarities between the two schools or the communities?
Soffen: “Both communities have a lot of pride in their athletic programs. They’re committed to their sports programs and they really are interested in what’s going on. The highlight of the week might be a certain event, and I think there’s a lot of pride within the student-athletes in the communities. I haven’t met any of the (Spaulding) student-athletes, but I know the community is definitely invested in their athletic programs. And that’s very similar to Peoples Academy.”
TA: You were coaching college for quite awhile. Are are a lot of those skills transferable back to high school?
Soffen: “For sure. There’s not too big of a difference when you’re talking about a junior or senior in high school to a freshman or sophomore in college. The life lessons that are being taught in high school are the same ones that are continuing to be taught in college. The connections that you can make are just as easy in high school as they are in college. So I think everything that I’ve done from the college level to Peoples Academy and to Spaulding, they all connect. And that’s student-focused first.”
TA: In terms of the Spaulding job, what was the timetable of when you found out about the opening and the whole hiring process?
Soffen: “It wasn’t until springtime that I heard that it was open. I applied and the process lasted about a month. It was around playoff time when I interviewed. Schoolspring had a deadline that was only about a week long, so I knew I needed to get the application in there pretty fast. And the first round of playoffs, that super-rainy day that everything got cancelled, was the week of the interview. And then I heard about a week later about a second interview. I was right in the midst of spring playoff season. And obviously I wanted to let Peoples know what was going on, so they could get it out there on Schoolspring if I did end up getting the (Spaulding) job. The process was pretty typical.”
TA: During the interview process were there a couple ways that you singled yourself out? Or stuff you brought to the table that made the difference for the hiring committee?
Soffen: “I honestly don’t know. I just put myself out there and said this is who I was, and this is why I was interested. I wanted to be able to give back to my community and give back to a school that helped develop who I was. That was one of my things that I wanted to get out there. And in the fall sports meetings I will continue to give that message.”
TA: Spaulding hasn’t won a team championship since hockey in 2010. But they’re typically one of the smallest schools in Division I, and that may change with new VPA alignments. So how do you view the importance of winning? Do you feel like you can be successful without winning titles, or is that a big part of the puzzle?
Soffen: “Sure, everyone wants to win banners. But that takes some time and it comes from the top down, so it starts with me and the coaches. The best team that I was ever on was that college soccer team that I never was a part of before — because it had the best camaraderie. It was the best group of teammates I probably ever had. We got along well on and off the field. And they won with a goalie who had never played the sport before, and that was a testament to the team. I think you can have great success with just how you work together as a team. And so I’m going to take a long look at team culture, and if there’s any shifts that need to be made. That’s a good starting point for me in order to have some success. And I think success is bigger than just winning state championships. Those are great, but I also want everyone to have a great experience that they can look back on and talk about.”
TA: If you go back in the time machine 20 years ago when you were at Spaulding, are there a couple big differences now like the concussion protocol? Are there some things that jump out in your mind where the culture or the atmosphere with athletics is clearly different than it was 20 ago?
Soffen: “Yeah. I didn’t know the ins and outs of what Shawn Woods, my athletic director, did. So those technicality things I wouldn’t know, outside of the concussion protocols — and that’s obviously a big thing. I think social media is one of the biggest differences from when I was in school. That didn’t exist. It was great when the newspaper came and did a story, and you could see your picture in the paper. And that’s still great. But a lot of things are shared online now. Social media is a blessing, and sometimes it can be a curse as well. So that’s a big change. And I think the sports have evolved. The Euro step wasn’t around when I was in school. And I think the generation of kids is still the same. We like to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t do that back then.’ But I’m sure we did. There’s still a lot of pride in the sports programs here. And actually a lot of people that I either went to school with, or who were in the same class as my two older sisters, they’ve stuck around the community. Some of their kids are coming through Spaulding as well, and they want to see it thrive.”
TA: One thing Spaulding does have is a wide variety of sports. It has a full wrestling team, indoor track placed third at states this year and it has a thriving girls tennis team. Is that a source of pride just to offer all these sports?
Soffen: “Having the ability to offer all these sports and having interest there is great. I think it would adhere to the needs and wants of our student-athletes. Phil Kerin and Matt Thurston were wrestlers around my age in school and they had great success. And what (coaches) do within the community just to develop wrestling is great, because some of these schools don’t have a Barre Youth Sports feeder program. I do think Spaulding coaches are doing a great job trying to get out there to get the word out about some of these programs. And I think that helps them attain the success that they have had.”
TA: How about the ugly side of the job that people don’t always see? Have you been in situations where you’ve had to escort a parent out of the gym? Are there low points that stick out in your mind?
Soffen: “Between being at Nichols and being at Peoples Academy, I think I’ve had the whole gamut of things to manage. And just like any job, there’s some things that are harder than others. And I think I’ve encountered most everything. Every year you’re like, ‘Oh, haven’t done that one before.’ That just happens and it’s part of the job. If you have someone yelling at officials or whatever, you have that education piece as well because some people just don’t know. We talk with kids about how you don’t want to make the same mistake twice. And I think that goes for everyone. You deal with situations as they come up. And you just hope you don’t have to deal the same situation — or the same people within the situation — over and over again.”