Coaching through chaos

A national news story, a global pandemic and wedding planning have been part of Susan Ciufo’s journey as Temple’s field hockey coach.

Story by Adam Croganale

A bright September Tuesday at Howarth Field was accompanied by every top news station in Philadelphia. This was anything but a normal field hockey practice for anyone, let alone a first-time Division I head coach.

Suan Ciufo leaned back in her chair and let out a huge sigh before recalling the unique, and perhaps life-changing experience, that took place during her first month as the head coach of the Temple Field Hockey team less than two years ago.

On Sept. 7, 2019, Temple squared off against No. 24 Maine at Kent State University. After 70 minutes of a scoreless tie, the teams were kicked off the field because of a pregame festivity firework display that was scheduled for Kent State’s football game that afternoon. 

“We’re a transitioning program and we’re playing against a top-20 team, and we’re going into double overtime,” Ciufo said. “To not be able to complete that game was heartbreaking for our ladies. I think what hurt more was that in field hockey, a game couldn’t end in a tie, so that game didn’t even count.”

As a result, the game was listed as a scrimmage in the record books. 

“There were so many thoughts from the minute we got kicked off the field,” Ciufo said. “I will never forget the bus ride home. It was so hard, but it was also so awesome to see (the team) be pissed together. They were mad and angry they couldn’t finish the game.”

Three days later, the camera crews swarmed the Temple Sports Complex. 

“You have all these interviews right away and you don’t really think about it. You’re just answering questions,” Ciufo said. “A year goes by and you realize the weight that was held with that. I think we think back and wonder if we did the right thing. Should we have just protested and not left the field?”

The team didn’t protest, but Ciufo wasn’t done following the news coverage. She went to theNCAA Convention, fought for a change, and that change was made because of Sept. 7. Now, if a certain portion of a game is played, that game is counted. 

The impact of Susan Ciufo at Temple goes far beyond a rule change. Temple increased its win total to seven in 2019 and followed that up with an 8-10 record this spring in 2021. The 2021 season also resulted in the first BIG EAST Tournament appearance for the Owls since 2016. 

“I enjoy taking something that might need a little TLC and making it great,” Ciufo said. “While we are not where we want to be yet, we are light years away from where we were.” 

The Pennsylvania-born athlete turned coach from Bangor, Pennsylvania has always loved the grind to success. Ciufo took on the tall task of flipping a program that was coming off a 2-16 season without a conference win. Little did she know at the time, she would be balancing the program with a controversial news headline, a pandemic, and even her own wedding. 

Prior to coaching, Ciufo spent her college days not far from Temple as a Drexel Dragon from 2007 to 2010. 

“I was really fortunate,” Ciufo said. “Part of what drew me there was the coaches, but I also wanted to go be a part of a program that was transitioning.” 

Before Ciufo’s commitment to the program, Drexel went 8-11 in 2006. Once she stepped onto campus, it was a whole different story. The Dragons went on to a 12-9 record in her freshman year, followed by a 16-4 record in her sophomore year. The team had its best season during Ciufo’s tenure during her junior season, finishing at 19-4, before ending the 2010 season at 15-5. 

Bottom line, a team that had just come off a sub-par .500 season never finished below .500 while Ciufo was a Dragon.  

After her playing days were over, the former Dragon played for the USA Field Hockey Indoor team from 2011 to 2015. She also spent two seasons as an interim head coach at Lehigh University, in addition to two years as an assistant coach at her alma mater. In 2015, she moved north to officially start the next chapter of her life as a permanent head coach at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. 

“I’m the biggest advocate for finding the place that’s right for you,” Ciufo said. “I loved my experience at Stonehill. After four years, it felt like I needed a change. Again, I don’t like feeling comfortable.”

Just at the right time, a current parent reached out to Ciufo to notify her of the opening at Temple. 

“I had a couple other offers at the same time, but when I came to Temple for my interview, it felt like home,” Ciufo said. “I love Philadelphia and I was really excited to teach these ladies. I like that North Philly style. I like the grit. I like that we have to work for everything, and that’s really who I am.”

As a result, Ciufo landed the job as the Temple Field Hockey coach in January of 2019. When she moved, she didn’t come alone. Her boyfriend and now fiance, Tim Bennett, an assistant defensive backs coach with Stonehill College’s football team when they met, also moved south. 

“She saw something in Temple,” Bennett said, “that Philly tough mentality that she wanted to be a part of. Temple always had that mentality in the past, and that’s something she was attracted to and wanted to bring back.” 

“I love Philly,” Ciufo said. “I’m from Pa. I’m a Philly girl, so coming back was really special for me.” 

When Ciufo got to the team, she noticed some similarities to the other Philadelphia team she once played for. 

“I got that experience of putting in that hard work with my teammates and my coaches at Drexel,” Ciufo said. “I knew how much that played a really huge role in who I am as a person now. Being able to come to Temple, and back to Philadelphia, and be able to do that for the student athletes now was important to me. Hopefully they leave and feel like they’ve added a lot of value to this program, but also that they’ve learned a lot.”

Following the Kent State game just two weeks into the 2019 season, a new Sports Information Director was officially hired for the team. Jordan Manning walked into the door as another new face on North Broad Street alongside Ciufo. 

“Some coaches are really hands-on in terms of putting stuff out and making sure their program is publicized in a way that makes people excited about them,” Manning said. “Susan is definitely one of those coaches. From day one, she bought in and wanted to build the program and lay the foundation. It’s really been great to work with her and coaches like that.”

“(Ciufo) is really big about making sure the team gets back to that grit and the Temple TUFF mindset,” Manning added. “Just in the way that she runs her program. She wants the girls to have that grit and that toughness. The mindset of diving for the ball if they have to.” 

“When she’s out there as a coach, she’s pretty tenacious, so I think she brings that to the team,” Bennett said. “You can see that in the fight the girls have.”

As mentioned, the team played its 2021 season in the spring rather than the fall thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our team got back in the beginning of August,” Ciufo said. “We started preseason expecting we were going to have a season, and then we were told during preseason that we weren’t. … It was not a matter of if we were going to have a season, it was when will our next season be. We were still looking at it as we still have to train. Especially because we’re a transitioning program, we can’t take a day off.”

The team made the BIG EAST Tournament for the first time in four seasons despite losing senior captain, Dani Batze, to a torn ACL, along with numerous injuries to other players, including PCLs and ankle injuries. 

“We’ve just been consistently losing really key role players,” Ciufo said. “Everybody stepped up. I think my team has dealt with a ton of adversity and I think they meet it head on. They take a bite out of the sandwich and they’re ready to go.” 

It was also a testament to the team that they had no COVID cases during the entire 2021 season. 

In addition to the already overflowing 2021 spring schedule, Ciufo also coached the entire season while planning her own wedding. It was initially scheduled for May 2020, but due to pandemic, that never happened. 

“(Tim and I) were like, ‘Let’s push it out a whole year so we’re nowhere near field hockey season,’” Ciufo said. “Field hockey season gets moved to the spring.”

“I’ll be honest, the last year has kind of sucked with not being able to do anything,” Bennett said. “Obviously, being cooped up at home was not fun, and then just adding the wedding stuff on top of that made it even more stressful, I know for her especially. It’s every girl’s dream to want to put that white dress on, so she’s been going through it. Adding that on top of the season has led to a lot of outside factors.”

Even though the hours have been daunting, Ciufo has had support from her future husband. 

“I’ve been really fortunate,” Ciufo said. “Tim is extremely supportive. He loves the girls and he loves the hockey program. Our house is a mess and we have no food in the fridge, but he loves me and he loves hockey, so I’m really fortunate. … He is the best coach’s husband ever.” 

When Bennett was asked what a typical night looks like when Ciufo comes home, the happy couple shared a funny moment picking on each other for how the past few months have gone. 

“She comes home, watches film, and then she does wedding stuff,” Bennett said. 

“What do you do?” Ciufo chimed in from the other room.

“I try to help out as much as I can,” Bennett said.

“You do not!” Ciufo interrupted.

“Her family is big planners and I’m from California,” Bennett joked. “My family is more of a go with the flow. We don’t really like to plan stuff. I just agree with everything.”

Now that the season is over, the couple has just two weeks to work as a team, without the team away from home, before the big day. 

As of now, the plan is to have the closest season to normal in the fall of 2021; one could argue it could be the most normal since 2018 when Ciufo was still at Stonehill. 

“I doubt (a normal season) would happen for us,” Ciufo said. “I feel like we’ll find something. It is challenging playing a COVID season, but we’re so grateful. I feel like the ladies don’t even realize all the things that are difficult.” 

For people like Bennett and Manning, the impact of Ciufo has been great, even through the chaotic adversity over the past two seasons. 

“It’s been fun,” Bennett said. “I can see the culture change since we first got here. I think the hard work on the field, you can just see the grit that she’s bringing to the table. You can just see them competing with some of the top teams in the league now and having those close games.”

“You can really tell that she loves the program,” Manning said. “You can tell how the entire staff promotes the program on social media that they have absolutely bought in from day one to being here at Temple.” 

According to Manning, Ciufo has upperclassmen show new teammates around campus when they arrive at Temple so they don’t feel alone or left out. The team also has bonding sessions at local places, like the Reading Terminal Market, to grow the culture and unity of the program both on and off the field.

“I’ve worked with teams in the past where the girls don’t hang out or their not necessarily friends off the field,” Manning said. “This group of girls is really special. They’re all each other’s best friends and it’s evident in the way they cheer each other on. I think Coach has made it really easy for them to bond.”

That bond has no doubt helped everyone involved with the Temple Field Hockey team during Ciufo’s tenure. Through everything, there are no regrets from Ciufo; just smiles. 

“This has been hard, tiring, exhausting, but I’m grateful,” Ciufo said. “We have great kids, and I have the best staff in the nation. I’m the luckiest person in the world.” 

Front page photo courtesy of OwlSports.com.

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