Aug. 8, 2016
By Leigh Torbin
It’s not unusual to hear people around Notre Dame say that while you may physically leave Our Lady’s University after you graduate, Notre Dame never leaves you.
A two-time team captain and a first-team All-American as a senior in 2014, Margaret Smith the women’s lacrosse student-athlete may have became Maggie Smith the coach, but she was always a Notre Dame aluma during the past two years as an assistant coach at Stetson University.
The last time the Irish stepped on the field, May 21 in an NCAA quarterfinal matchup at North Carolina, Smith was in the Fetzer Field stands. When the Irish next step on the field, Smith will instead be on the Notre Dame bench as head coach Christine Halfpenny announced on Monday that Smith will rejoin the program as an assistant coach.
“(Notre Dame) is a place, even when I was just recruited here, where you feel like you’re part of a family when you walk on campus,” Smith said. “When you walk into any of the facilities, you feel like it’s a place where people really care about you and are putting everything into making sure you have the best possible experience.
“As a player we were always pursuing a national championship and in the two years I’ve been away, the program has come so much closer. I’m excited to be able to come back and contribute to getting us to the ACC and national championships.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in 2014, Smith embarked on a coaching career at Stetson University. The Hatters program is young, beginning play in 2013, and located in a non-traditional lacrosse area of tiny DeLand, Florida. These challenges have proven to be a tremendous learning opportunity for an accomplished player but novice coach like Smith.
Along with wearing a variety of new hats for the first time, Smith wore them all at once for half of the 2016 season, serving as Stetson’s interim head coach while head coach Christy Leach took her maternity leave. Further adding to the complexity of the situation, Leach had her baby just two days before Stetson’s season opener, a game to be played over 2,500 miles away at Fresno State.
Smith would lead the Hatters to four of their five wins on the 2016 season, growing immensely as a coach along the way.
“At Stetson I had the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibilities and without that experience from Christy Leach and the players, I wouldn’t really be ready for this opportunity to come back to Notre Dame,” Smith admits. “Without Stetson and all of the challenges – the good and the bad – I wouldn’t have been able to come back here. I owe a huge debt of gratitude towards them for the past two years of getting me to this place.
“It gave me a lot of perspective and insight into the nuances of coaching. It allowed me to grow and broaden my horizons by taking on not only the role of an assistant coach but also by coaching both sides of the ball, being supportive of the players but also being the one to discipline them. It gave me all of those perspectives on how to not fill just one role but do multiple.”
Halfpenny is one of many around the Irish program who cannot wait for Smith to return to South Bend.
“I'm absolutely thrilled to welcome Maggie back to home to Notre Dame,” Halfpenny said. “I had the fortunate opportunity to coach Maggie for three years here and she was a huge part of our team's success playing both midfield and defense. As a player, she was a fierce competitor and a winner. I am looking forward to seeing those qualities translate to her coaching style and techniques with our players.
“Having been a student-athlete here she understands the awesome challenges for our current players. She has strong communication skills that will be very valuable to our team in skill development and will also be instrumental in developing our draw unit. I can't wait to collaborate with Maggie and start our journey towards ACC and NCAA championships.”
Smith’s playing acumen needs no introduction around the grounds of Arlotta Stadium. A cog in the program’s overall transition from the BIG EAST to the ACC, unquestionably the nation’s toughest women’s lacrosse league, Smith held the Irish defense together in 2014 with the loss of her fellow All-American Barbara Sullivan early in the season.
Named the national co-Defender of the Year as a senior, Smith led the ACC in both ground balls and caused turnovers, ranking in the top 10 nationally for both of these major statistical categories. Smith retired as Notre Dame’s career record holder with 122 caused turnovers, a mark since surpassed by Sullivan. She also finished her time at Notre Dame ranked third in Irish lore with 151 career draw controls.
“Having a coach that understands the midfield position was a priority in this hire,” Halfpenny said. “Maggie brings experience all over the field. We really considered Maggie a ‘jack of all trades’ during her playing days. She was an outside goal scorer who understood space and movement, a transition player that made an impact on the fast break, in our ride, and was a top take-away defender making pick-offs and checks looks effortless. Our players will be in great hands as Maggie helps them develop their skill and strategy to compete in the best league in the country.”
Notre Dame is a unique environment and a particularly high-pressured one on the women’s lacrosse field competing in a conference which routinely sends seven of its eight teams to the NCAAs and often accounts for at least half of the national top 10. At one stage of Smith’s senior season, Notre Dame was ranked No. 11 in the nation although the team stood seventh in the ACC standings.
Notre Dame’s program stands on firm footing, something evidenced by the team making the NCAAs for a school-record five straight years including 2016’s trip to the quarterfinals on the heels of a second round 15-3 annihilation of Northwestern at Arlotta Stadium.
Smith played for Halfpenny and fellow assistant coach Katie Powell, excelling under their tutelage. She played alongside the team’s 2017 senior class and got to know the team’s juniors during their recruiting process. She has remained in touch with the program and is familiar with the team right up through its most recent contest. Coupled with her coaching experiences the past two years, there may be no better fit for this position.
“It will make that transition more seamless knowing Chris’ tendencies and what she’s trying to do as well as knowing the personalities of a lot of the players,” Smith said. “It will help us be successful right away.”
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame's lacrosse teams while serving as the football publicity team's top lieutenant. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.