WILMINGTON – Back on Monday, November 7th, Sue Hendee closed out a long chapter of being the head coach of the Wilmington High School Girls' Soccer team. It's a career that has lasted 35 seasons and 650 games – and if you include the first year as an assistant, it's 36 seasons and 668 games.
It's a career that aside from her 324 wins, 10 league titles and a trip to the State Championship game, revolved around building a program that was competitive nearly every year, had dozens and dozens of players go on to play in college at all levels from Division 1 to 3 (Kat Strazzere played professionally and Olivia Wingate could go that route soon) and dozens of players come back to coach either at WHS or elsewhere in the high school or collegiate ranks.
It's a career that also revolved around an elementary school teacher, who volunteered her time for a number of out-of-school/soccer activities, raising thousands and thousands of dollars for various causes. She also on countless number of times donated her time to different causes here in the town of Wilmington, which is about 400 miles from where she grew up.
Over her 35 years, Hendee made trips to local hospitals to see sick/injured players. She made trips all around New England to see her many players excel at the collegiate level. She held get togethers with opposing teams offering pizza and cookies and so forth.
Hendee epitomized the meaning of a coach. She was tough but extremely fair. She is extremely knowledgeable and knows how to coordinate practices, make adjustments in games, and more importantly develop players, while getting the most out of their talents. She has adjusted throughout five decades of play, three different leagues, two different state tournament formats, all while playing on grass and then going to artificial turf.
“I believe a large part of Miss Hendee's success was fostered by the team building she encourages every season,” said former player Jacqueline Kennedy. “Over my four years playing for Miss Hendee, I attended many team dinners, fundraisers, and team building activities such as Camp 40 Acres and attending Boston College women’s soccer games. Miss Hendee shows her support for her players by attending off-season games — she came to numerous games for softball, basketball, lacrosse, etc.”
Hendee finished with a career record of 324-237-89 and celebrated with ten league championships. In seven seasons in the Merrimack Valley Conference she won 53 games. In 16 seasons in the Cape Ann League, her teams won 127 games with back-to-back league titles. And in 12 seasons in the Middlesex League, her record was an incredible 144-50-36, which included winning seven straight league titles, advancing to the Eastern Mass Championship game (no Western Mass that year, so that was the State title game) and over a four-year span, her teams finished with a combined mark of 69-5-8.
“I think she is a very dedicated coach,” said former player Jenn Earls, back in 2003. “She devotes a lot of time. Her communication line is always open and she always lets you know that. If can be anything with the team, or anything in general. We have meetings at practices and she wants our feedback of how things were done and so forth. I think that was very important that she likes to know what her players feelings are because if you can’t communicate with each other, you don’t have anything.
“She loves the game of soccer. Absolutely she loves it. She really enjoys what she’s doing. She gets the players to have that same love and desire she has for the game and we all can follow in her footsteps. She’s very knowledgeable with the sport. She taught us a lot and I know she helped me improve a lot. She knows that she can’t teach everything but she also knows that she can take stuff from other coaches to get a point across. She really connects with everyone. We had such team unity this season and she was a major part of that.”
Hendee leaves this program as the all-time winningest female coach in Wilmington High School history. She has 91 more than Hall of Famer Jan Cassidy-Wood. Hendee is already enshrined into the Massachusetts State Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame, and is honored by the state as one of the Final-4 brackets is named after her.
Certainly, no doubt Hendee is a Hall of Fame coach and most of all, Hall of Fame person.
"For Sue to get her 300th win is such a great accomplishment," said former WHS Athletic Director Ed Harrison, back in 2019. "Not only is she a great coach, but she is a better teacher of the game. She challenges her athletes to be the best they can be both on and off the field. Her teams are made up of hard workers, who are competitive and who always show good sportsmanship.”
THREE SPORT ATHLETE
Hendee grew up outside of Rochester, New York in a town called Pittsford. She attended Southerland High School and was a three-sport athlete before graduating in 1978. She was a forward on the soccer team, a guard on the basketball team and a second baseman on the softball team.
“Back then girls sports were just starting,” said Hendee. “In soccer we were a club team my freshman year and then we went varsity in my sophomore year. More girls started to come out for teams. Title nine really opened up a lot.”
During her senior season in soccer, the team finished with an 18-1-1 record and went the furthest any team could go at that time, which she said was equivalent to what used to be the North Sectional Finals here in Massachusetts.
After graduating from high school, she went on to Springfield College. She was a physical education major and ended up graduating in 1982.
“I was like every kid who was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Hendee said. “I did what I felt comfortable at and what I thought I was good at and that was being with kids. My mother (Barbara) was a teacher and I just wanted to teach and continue to do something in athletics. It was either that or something in French because I was pretty good at that too.”
When she arrived at Springfield, Hendee found out that there was no women's varsity soccer team. So she played club for the first two years before the school officially took the soccer program to varsity level in her junior year.
“Back then we didn’t have any clear cut divisions,” she said. “We would play UMass, UConn, Dartmouth, BC, Harvard and at the same time play schools like Keene State and Westfield. It was a lot of diversity. It wasn’t division one or division two. Only a few schools had it and it was interesting.”
Hendee said that once the team went varsity, it had instant success including winning the New England Women’s Soccer Association tournament. She added that if soccer had been a varsity sport when she first arrived there in 1978, she’s not sure she would have tried out.
“It would have been intimidating,” she said. “I would’ve regretted it if I didn’t go out but it was easier when it was just a club team. It made it such an easier transition. But I was like every kid, even today, thinking I wouldn’t make it, or I wouldn’t have enough time for my studies.”
After graduating from college, Hendee took a teacher’s position back in New York in a small town near Indian Lake. There she taught physical education to children from kindergarten to 12th grade as each grade made up of about 20 kids. She was there for almost five years before she realized that she wanted to go back to Massachusetts. In 1986, she went to the Cambridge Shady Hill School knowing she was filling a position for just a six-month period.
“That was around the time of proposition two-and-a-half and no one was hiring,” she said. “I had the teaching experience and so I went to Shady Hill for the six months. After that I saw a position opened in Wilmington and I started at the Wildwood School in 1987.”
She spent two years at the Wildwood, two years at the Woburn Street School and then 29 years at the Shawsheen Elementary School, retiring several years ago.
Coincidentally, her first trip to Wilmington in 1987 was the same time the girls’ varsity soccer program began. She assisted Steve Mader for the first year as the team finished 7-7-4. The following year in 1988, she took over and the team had a great season, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time.
“The biggest difference between then and (2003) is the amount of exposure,” she said, during an interview with the Town Crier after being named the Coach of the Year. “Now when you get to high school, you have all of these youth programs to get you started. There’s a lot of camps which are available, there’s summer leagues and clubs and indoor leagues. There’s all kinds of stuff which wasn’t offered back then. I think the kids today have a better understanding of the game too. They are much more tactical and I think that’s because of the playing experience they have.
“Back then, Mom and Dad would usually fill in as a volunteer coach because a team needed one. Now there's training courses for people to take and it’s a lot more knowledgeable.”
During the first year she became head coach at Wilmington at the age of 28, Hendee lost her Mother Barbara, who passed away with breast cancer.
“Coaching soccer really helped me get through that,” she said. “It was very hard for me. My mother was 400 miles away and she was sick and she was dying. It was just very tough and soccer got me through that.”
In the same 2003 interview, Hendee said that it was her parents, who instilled that incredible work ethic and dedication into her blood lines.
“All of that came from the influence of my parents (Barbara and Buell),” she said. “As an athlete and as a coach I try to keep the same standard. I expect that from my players. I want the kids and the team to have a good time. I want them to work hard, to show good sportsmanship, to be good teammates, to be good students, to be a model citizen on and off the field and mostly just to have a positive experience.”
MORE TOUGH TIMES
Hendee had been the coach at WHS for eight seasons from 1988 to 1995. The program had some success winning double digit games three times while in the MVC. In the fall of 1995, the 'Cats really struggled finishing 3-10-4. It was just a few months after that season when one of her players, Kara Irving, was diagnosed with cancer, and another, Lauren Senesi, was seriously injured in an automobile accident. “They were down the hall from one another at Mass General,” recalled Hendee.
Senesi was in a car that hit some ice and crashed. She had her seat belt on, which kept her from being thrown, but she suffered serious internal injuries, as well as two broken bones in her back. She had to be Air-Lifted to Mass General and went through a number of operations.
“That freak accident with Lauren was really, really bad but she recovered from it quite quickly,” said Hendee.
Meanwhile Irving was battling cancer. The team, the school and the community rallied around her. She graduated from WHS and went on to Syracuse University, before the cancer struck again and she passed away during her sophomore year in 2000.
“Honestly, that was the hardest thing that I ever had to go through as a coach. Her family is just so nice, she was so nice and it was really such a hard thing to understand,” said Hendee.
Hendee was there through those tough times with Senesi and Irving. Around the same time on the boys side, Joe Bamberg had his accident out in Chicago when he fell from a tree, and Hendee was on hand to assist in the 'Joe Bamberg Day'.
“How can’t people connect with other people like (Senesi, Irving and Bamberg)?” she asked back in that 2003 interview. “I really think that the people in Wilmington rally around certain situations and they are very supportive of others. The people of the town are always trying to give back. These kids here in Wilmington are such great kids. I don’t know how people can’t help out when something catastrophic happens.”
Helping out is Hendee's middle name. Since arriving in Wilmington, she has raised money and completed 32 Pan Mass Challenge Bike Rides. She started and co-ordinated the Wilmington Pan Mass Kids Bike Ride. Over the last ten years, she has joined up with Stoneham to raise money for breast cancer. She also took part in the Jimmy Fund Walk, raising money there. She's volunteered her time helping out with various road races here in town, and so many other fundraising events. Throughout all of those events, she has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I just think it's the right thing to do. It's important to help people who are in need of help. There's been plenty of tragedy in Wilmington,” she said. “The breast cancer thing is a personal thing because my mom died from that so that's why we do a lot with that. Then when we tied it in with Hope and Friendship, when we found out that was actually based in Wilmington, that was a perfect match.
“I believe in the Pan Mass Challenge. It's a great organization. When I did the kids' rides, I just thought it was important for kids to know that they can help make a difference in what goes on in this world in a positive way.”
TURNING THINGS AROUND
Throughout the years in the Cape Ann League, Wilmington had its share of success, including the back-to-back league title seasons in 2003 and 2004, combining for 25 wins and several thrilling state tournament victories. The program stayed around the .500 mark for each of the next five seasons, before closing out the CAL in 2010 with the 3-10-5 record. And once the 'Cats entered the Middlesex League, they dominated winning 10-15-19-16-18-16 games over the first six seasons and that followed with an 8-6-5 mark in 2017, which gave the team its seventh straight league title.
“There was a lot of good background coaching with that group. Leo Figueiredo coached a bunch of those girls so they were well skilled, they were large numbers and those were our biggest years in terms of numbers throughout our entire program,” said Hendee. “We were lucky to be very selective with the kids we chose for the varsity team. It was actually a little surprising that the (league championship streak) went that long because there were a number of years with very large groups of seniors who left and it looked to be a rebuilding season (the following year), but then (that season) went really well.
“One thing that I have tried to do as a coach is to balance the roster in terms of grade levels, so you don't lose fifteen seniors and then have to try to rebuild because that's difficult. Sometimes you can't avoid it. I usually take freshmen and I don't mind playing freshmen. I know there's some coaches who don't really do that at all and I just think a good player is a good player.”
Hendee certainly coached a lot of great players during that streak. Certainly the 2013 team was the cast of players ever assembled in program history. The Wildcats finished that season at 19-2-1, which included winning the program's first ever Division 2 North Sectional title, before losing in the Eastern Mass final to Notre Dame of Hingham in penalty kicks.
“The thing with that team was we had a good, large group of seniors and they were all just great leaders. They all got along, they understood that the goal of the team was to be a team player and I think that was our strength,” said Hendee. “We were strong in every position and they played well and they played hard. I think (the program) always gets good athletes. We had some really good athletes that year. We had good speed and were pretty solid in every position. The thing that really stood out with that group was their leadership.”
Since winning the seventh straight league title in 2017, the 'Cats have gone 42-30-16 over the last five seasons, which included sharing the league title during the abbreviated 2020 COVID season, and going 1-1 in each of the past two seasons in the new statewide tournament, both times losing to far superior teams in Silver Lake Regional and Danvers.
From the team's first tournament appearance in 1988 to this last one, Hendee has seen it all – thrilling wins, penalty kick victories, penalty kick defeats, controversial calls, crushing defeats, upset wins, upset losses – she has seen it all, and adjusted throughout the times.
“Yes, (my coaching style has changed) and the game has changed (since I started),” she answered. “You have to stay current as the game develops. I've always taken advantage of going to coaching clinics and trying to stay current as much as possible. It's not that the kids today are any more committed than the kids who started (the program) off, it's just (the kids today) have a stronger (soccer) background. Back then it was just coming out of youth soccer and there really wasn't a strong club (soccer) presence. Now there is such a strong club presence which can be very helpful and also has its issues. Overall I think the level of skill is much higher.”
After last year's season, Hendee contemplated retiring but elected to come back for one more season. She told the team at the mid-way point that this would be her last. She is really hoping that she remains with the program as an assistant. She doesn't want to walk away from Wildcat Country forever.
“There's always mixed emotions. I don't think I'm ready to totally step away. I would really would like to see Shane (Kligerman) and I flip roles, where he becomes the head coach and I just help out,” she said. “This year has actually been really fun because we've really been kind of co-coaching and I think that will be a nice segue for him into the head coaching position. It's not my job to hire someone new, but I wouldn't understand why they wouldn't give him the job. He's been there for five years.
“I don't want the responsibility of being a head coach anymore. I still want to coach but planning practices, then doing all of the extra stuff, there are just other things that I want to do. I do want to travel. We have a Lake House in New York that was my dad's house and it's on Lake Ontario. It's really nice there in September and I don't think I've ever been there at that time because it's six hours away. I want to spend some time there.”
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. Until then Hendee was asked to reflect upon her career and some of the things that sticks out.
“One of the things as a coach that I am most proud of is one, the kids who go on to play in college, and the number of kids who we have had do that is really impressive and the number of schools that they have gone to,” she said. “The kids who go on and coach and the kids who have gone on to coach with me. That's one thing that I'm really, really proud of, those kids who have gone on and kind of passed the torch.
“I would like to thank my assistants (over my career). I don't want to mention names as I'm afraid I'll forget someone, but I would like to thank them all (collectively). The (varsity assistants) have all been volunteers and it's way passed the time that we have paid assistants at the varsity level. That's probably the biggest difference in coaching at the beginning of my career and at the end of it, is just being able to have someone else there just to be able to work with just the keepers or a specific group like attack, midfielders or defenders or whatever, it is incredibly difficult to do that by yourself. In this day and age, it's absolutely essential that you have assistant coaches to help you out.”
Besides her volunteer and paid sub-varsity assistants, Hendee wanted to also thank her supporters.
“I have been overall lucky with the sport that I've had with parents over the years. They have really been supportive and helpful, and concerned about their daughters. Most of the time it comes from the right place. Wilmington has been a really good town to teach in and coach in,” she said.
Back in 2003 when Hendee was asked about that successful season and winning the Town Crier Coach of the Year award, her words were so compelling, and it sums up exactly who she is as a person and as a coach.
“It’s much more than (the wins). The kids is the reason why I love coaching. What I like best is having the opportunity to have a kid in class and seeing them grow up and then I have them on the soccer team. That’s my favorite thing."