In her magnificent run as the field hockey coach at Walpole High, one that resulted in 274 victories and seven Division 1 state titles in 13 seasons, Penny Calf never strayed too far off message.
“She would know what your level is and then expect you to perform twice that,” recalled one of her former players, Jen Quinn, who guided the Porkers to a 14-3-1 record last fall in her first season as head coach.
“She would get that out of every single one of [us]. She’d push you to do things that you weren’t even capable of doing, but she’d find a way.”
Year in and year out, she expected her Porkers to compete.
“My philosophy was: We strive for perfection, but we accept excellence,” said Calf.
“Nobody’s ever perfect, but I tried to challenge them.”
But they had fun, and her players adored her.
And last month, when Calf was inducted to the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame along with a pair of college coaches — Pat Rudy (Lock Haven) and Jenepher Shillingford (Bryn Mawr), she was not alone.
Quinn made the trip to Sanford, Fla., along with four other former Porkers: former Franklin High and first-year Dean College coach Lisa Cropper, former Harvard stalwart Judy Collins Larkee, University of New England coach Danielle Collins, former US Olympian Dina Rizzo, currently an assistant at Princeton, and Sue Brainard, who was Calf’s predecessor at Walpole.
In those 13 seasons (1989-2001), Walpole lost 12 total games while racking up 12 Bay State Conference titles.
“Winning was an expectation, it was just what you did, you won,” said Quinn.
“And you would do whatever it takes to win.”
Walpole High, said Calf, was a real family atmosphere.
“I loved going to school every day,” she said.
Calf leveraged her people skills into an invitation to use the football team’s weight room.
“It was a hodge-podge of stuff that the football coaches had gotten from their own basements,” she said, joking that she probably flitted her eyelashes at legendary football coach John Lee, also the school’s athletic director at the time. She earned Lee’s favor through her program’s commitment to fitness.
“We never really had issues at Walpole High School with the boys getting more than the girls,” said Calf, giving credit to both Lee and Jim Burke, a pair of progressive ADs.
Hired as the junior varsity coach in 1971 — with a $150 stipend — she led the JV program until succeeding Brainard in 1989 and took the program to new heights.
She rewarded those girls that were wholeheartedly committed to the program and bought into working hard and following the rules.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the star who’s going to go on to be an Olympian, or whether you’re No. 20 and you’re on the bench and I’m struggling to get you in, we all have the same rules,” she said.
And for those players that did not buy in, “go play soccer.”
But of all her takeaways from her 31 seasons on the sideline, none quite resonated like her final season, in 2001.
Calf had planned to retire with her husband, Jack, in 2002 — the couple had purchased a home together three years prior in Hilton Head, S.C.
Jack Calf never made it to South Carolina. He died of cancer in the spring of 2001, leaving Calf to finish her final season as a coach, and last year as a teach, on her own.
Every player in the field hockey program attended his wake.
“Some of these kids were freshman, they hardly even knew me; some of these kids had never been to a wake before,” she recalled . “They didn’t even know what to say.”
“She didn’t have any children, she had her husband Jack, she had her golf game, and she had field hockey,” Quinn said. “That was her family.”
Unbeknownst to Calf, the captains had organized the players and dedicated the 2001 season to Jack Calf. The Porkers finished off a 24-0 season with their seventh state title.
“I just have really positive thoughts looking back,” said Calf, who has called Hilton Head home since 2002, spending her free time playing tennis and golf.
“Maybe if we’d gone 2-16 every year, it wouldn’t be so good, because winning is obviously more fun than losing, but I don’t know . . . it was just fun.”Ryan Hathaway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.