It’s 3:30 p.m. on game day.
Penn women’s soccer gathers for its pre-game meal, adds some final touches to the scouting report and briefly goes over the game plan one last time. Everything has been decided. There is still time before kickoff, but little left for the coaches to do.
So Nicole Van Dyke leaves. She heads out the doors of the Hollenback Center, slowly making her way to a Starbucks a couple blocks away.
On the way, she pulls out her phone and dials her loved ones: mother, sister and husband, each with the same message and wish of good luck.
She picks up her coffee for a reason that can only be ritual.
A person like Van Dyke needs no artificial stimulant to prepare for an Ivy League matchup. She feeds off the pressure. But even for a tenured coach with her track record and experience, a little pre-match anxiety can show up every once in awhile.
Separating herself from the team is a point of release for the coach.
“You have to make sure your thoughts are your thoughts, not being mixed in with other things,” she says.
Time continues to wind down, and eventually the second-year Penn coach finds her way back to the locker room, her assistants, her players, her passion.
Then, the peaceful Nicole, the one who needs her moment of respite all but vanishes, and the fiery, spirited one emerges — the one that never sits down, that paces up and down the sideline, whose voice can be heard on any part of the pitch.
The players finally take to the field.
‘The Most Competitive Player I’ve Ever Seen’
Born in Spokane, Wash., Van Dyke did not start playing soccer until she moved to California at 10 years old. A brother and a sister who lived across the street played the sport. For Van Dyke it was little more than “sure, I’ll join.”
It quickly became her everything. When the time came, she opted to play college at Cal State Bakersfield, a four-hour drive from her home of Palm Springs.
“She was the most competitive player I’ve ever seen,” said Simon Tobin, who was the head coach at Bakersfield when Van Dyke was there.
“I love it,” Van Dyke said. “The more pressure, the better. The more competitive the environment, the better. The harder the tackles, the tighter the game, I really just thrive in that environment.”
By graduation, Van Dyke had established herself as one of the greatest talents to ever go through the system at Bakersfield. She is tied for second in both career points and goals and holds the record for most goals in an individual season with 17, which she set in 2000, her final year.
Numbers like these would lead some to question why she opted not to pursue a career at Division I program. Tobin, for one, firmly believes that she could have excelled in the top league.
She was the girl who asked for a bag of soccer balls for her birthday. She was the player who came to practice early and only left when the lights were to be shut off.
Tobin, who ran both the men’s and women’s programs at Bakersfield, often talks of two of his former players turned coaches: Van Dyke and current Stanford men’s coach Jeremy Gunn.
“Without a doubt, I tell everybody that goes into this business that those are the two that you have to match up to,” Tobin said. “I probably knew within a couple of weeks of knowing them as players that they had something more.“
The high expectations that Tobin held for Van Dyke, his star player, sometimes manifested in interesting ways: a pineapple milkshake, for one.
“If we were on a trip...I would always need a milkshake on the drive home,” Tobin recalled.
“Nicole used to hate it because it would single her out,” he said. “She’d go and get the milkshake in front of the whole team and would have to bring it back to the van where everybody’s thinking, ‘She’s always having to do a little bit more than everybody else.’
“She hated it, but she was always ‘anything for the program.’”
Van Dyke remembers those instances fondly, or maybe she just remembers them. She was the player who wanted to please the coach, always willing to put in the extra effort for herself and her team.
“Here comes me, just looking like, ‘Here comes Nicole with a milkshake for the coach,’” Van Dyke recalls. “I remember being mortified, thinking that I must just be the biggest suck-up right now.”
But all the milkshakes, the balls in the back of the net and countless hours on the training ground only cemented what Van Dyke knew she wanted for a long time, for soccer to be a part of her life that went far beyond a college career.
Tobin took her under his wing as an assistant upon graduation, setting her on a journey that has spanned the better part of two decades.
“It’s opened up every door I’ve ever had,” Van Dyke said.
‘You’re Not Going to just do Physical Education’
Not quite ready to give up her playing career, Van Dyke packed her bags and set off for Sweden, home to one of the world’s top leagues for women’s soccer.
Despite the long journey, she knew from the start it wouldn’t involve a long stay. Early on, the desire to coach became the dominant one in Van Dyke’s mind.
For those closest to Van Dyke, however, collegiate coaching did not always seem like a viable career option, especially as a woman in what was traditionally a man’s profession.
“I think you have to ask her about her mother,” Tobin said.
“Obviously it was a different time then, so many years ago,” Van Dyke recounted. “I can remember my mom saying, ‘What are you going to study?’ I can’t imagine that she would remember this but it was like, ‘Well, you’re not going to just do PE, like physical education or something, right?’”
Van Dyke’s mother’s concern came at a time when a fair share of athletes would go into teaching subjects like physical education because they didn’t know what they wanted to do.
“I still think that my mom would have been happy if I had moved home and coached at the local high school and taught there,” Van Dyke continued.
Nowadays, Van Dyke’s mother is one of her most fervent supporters. She watches games on the Ivy League Digital Network and flies out for matches whenever possible.
Though it is hard to imagine Van Dyke removed from the world of coaching — she already has a national title and two Pac-12 titles from her time as an assistant at Stanford — when she started out, she was barely earning money, if any at all, making for a parent’s worst nightmare.
One of the things that mattered most to Van Dyke, however, was a single piece of clothing: her own polo, the emblem of making it in the coaching world.
“Nicole kept bugging me about when I was going to get her that polo shirt because her mother wouldn’t believe that she was a real college coach until she had a polo shirt,” Tobin said.
“I remember Simon said, ‘Nic, give me your polo. I forgot my polo,’” said Van Dyke, poorly imitating Tobin’s English accent.
“Well the moral of the story is obviously he had no problem wearing a tight shirt,” she joked. “But I remember being devastated that I had to give up this polo.”
“I put it off for a long time before I gave it to her,” Tobin said.
After a successful couple seasons as an assistant for Tobin, Van Dyke caught the eye of some other programs in the conference. At the tender age of 23, barely out of college, she received her first head coaching offer from Cal State Stanislaus.
“I was really young,” Van Dyke said. “For a few years I lied about my age because the kids were like 21 years old.”
She spent three seasons at Stanislaus, beating teams like Bakersfield to the title in her final year.
“I’ll never forget that team. They just enjoyed being the underdog,” she said.
But for Van Dyke, a young, ambitious coach with the ability to match it, a small D-II school with a campus that stretched little more than two streets could only contain her for so long.
The Highest Level
Back in her less experienced days, Van Dyke had almost come to conflate her own personhood with the performances of her teams. She says she took each loss as an attack on herself, stemming from a belief that her integrity could be defined by her wins and losses.
For someone with such sheer determination, only the top league in collegiate athletics could provide the challenge and opportunity Van Dyke sought. Luckily, it just so happened that her alma mater was looking in the same direction.
In 2006, Cal State Bakersfield opted to make the transition to D-I and split the men’s and women’s soccer programs. Tobin shifted to just coaching the men and Van Dyke took over her old team as head coach.
“I think still to this day I walk away, and I was like, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve done more there,’” Van Dyke said.
After a challenging five seasons overseeing the transition to Division I, Van Dyke received what might go down as one of the biggest breaks of her career, an opportunity to work with the back-to-back NCAA runner-ups: Stanford.
She came on as an assistant for the 2011 season under head coach Paul Ratcliffe. That same year the Cardinal won its first national championship.
Van Dyke would go on to spend four seasons at Stanford. In her final year, Ratcliffe bestowed her the title of associate head coach, a new position he created to recognize her commitment and importance to the program.
“Being promoted to associate head coach was...I don’t even know what the word to explain that is,” Van Dyke said. “But deep down, I was a head coach before I went to Stanford, and I feel like I do have a lot of head coaching personality in me.
“Ultimately I knew at some point I would be in a position that I can be selective of the institution that I want to coach at. Lo and behold Penn. I always knew I wanted to be in charge of a program again,” she said.
Starting a Family
Penn men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller was one of the first to reach out to Van Dyke about the Penn opening, hoping to welcome her to the soccer family.
Not too long before, however, Van Dyke had started a family of her own. In March 2014, she married Jason Werner, who she had met on a recruiting trip to San Francisco during her time at Cal State Bakersfield.
“He seems to think I took the Stanford job for him,” Van Dyke said of her husband who was then coaching club soccer at Marin FC. “I’ve reminded him that it was Stanford, and yeah, it worked out.”
Werner is in the coaching business as well, and soccer serves as material for many of the couple’s conversations at home. Soccer was also the genesis of another big decision: to uproot their lives on the West Coast and head east to University City.
As if the move wasn’t enough, Van Dyke became a mother not long after arriving in Philadelphia, a new role that has been difficult to manage with the obvious strain of D-I coaching.
“[My son] Rory is at the age where he can say, ‘Mama,’” Van Dyke said. “Just this last game he woke up and Dad’s watching the Ivy League Digital Network, and he’s saying ‘Mama, Mama, Mama.’ He’s upset. Part of those things you smile for, but part of you is like, ‘He obviously wants you there.’”
For many though, having a 15-month-old child around practices and games has brought new meaning to a Penn soccer family. Van Dyke often says Rory has 28 aunts.
“His only words so far: shoes, goal, kick it and ball. That was at least after Mom and Dad, so we got the priorities down,” Van Dyke said. “He’s such a rambunctious little boy. I mean, I want him to play soccer, but dad is more of the ‘He can do whatever,’ the more grounded.”
Recruiting has always been a key component of Van Dyke’s coaching approach — she still takes great pride in her work at Stanford, many of whose star players were brought in during her time there.
A Red and Blue soccer family, however, existed long before Van Dyke set foot on Rhodes Field, and through her recruiting she is working hard to the ensure that the legacy of the program endures.
To Van Dyke, recruiting a player is more than just selling facilities or envisioning potential trophies. She seeks to build relationships with families, hoping to add them to her own.
“I think being a mom changes your perspective on things a little bit,” she said.
“As we grow as coaches and with the more experience we get, it’s not the little stuff you have to worry about. It’s not that you have to have the right t-shirt on at practice or the right color socks on; those are the things that aren’t as important to me anymore.”
A Men’s Club
Demi Moore is put into the Navy SEALs in the hope that she will fail out. She doesn’t. She gets accepted by all the guys, shaves her head and does one-armed pushups.
This is how Van Dyke describes the plot to G.I. Jane — and with an exciting storyline, feel-good ending and strong female lead, it’s not hard to see why the movie is her all-time favorite.
In fact, one might even be tempted to draw parallels between Van Dyke and her cherished protagonist.
Van Dyke stresses that she is first and foremost a coach. She does not want to be classified into any one category, and yet, she is eager to embrace the good that she can do as a woman in what has long been seen as a men’s club.
“There are some brilliant young women coaches out there and sometimes they just need to be let in the door when they’re young,” Tobin said.
“I found out that that door was always open for boys, but I think because all these clubs were usually run by men, that always they were reluctant to get girls involved to start coaching.”
There is no contention regarding Van Dyke’s qualifications, but the implications of her success go beyond winning titles or amassing accolades. For many of her players, she is the first female coach that they will ever have.
Van Dyke herself has never had a female coach.
“You always want to break a glass ceiling,” she said.
“If I can advocate for more women coaches and for our players to maybe do something they think they couldn’t do,” she continued, “whether it’s [being] the CEO of a company or whatever they want to do, hopefully I’ve contributed to the fact that it is possible.”
Senior captain Paige Lombard is one of the many Penn players who has really taken to Van Dyke.
“It’s awesome having powerful women to look up to and see how they hold themselves,” Lombard said.
During the recruiting process, freshman Kelsey Andrews was sold on Van Dyke’s promise to bring Californian style soccer to the east coast, but she has appreciated the opportunity to play on her first woman-led team.
“Well honestly it just helps relate better,” Andrews said. “It’s a totally different style, but I like getting coached by girls.”
“First and foremost she’s been a role model for me more than anything else,” assistant coach Emily Perrin added.
Times are changing. There are more opportunities for women coaches than there were when Van Dyke was finding her footing, but the perpetual conflict between chasing a career and having a settled family is still strong in many minds.
“I’m a big proponent for women coaches and staying in the game. What you can offer females, coaching them, is showing that you can be a role model, that you can have a successful career, that you can be committed to something and still have a family,” Van Dyke said.
The coaching profession, like countless others, still has a long way to come before women are afforded the same privileges that men are, but so long as there figures like Van Dyke, one can hope that there will be more young, female athletes willing to challenge the status quo.
“It’s a competitive movie,” Van Dyke said of G.I. Jane. “It’s a girl who obviously went through some trying times. She was basically there to fail because she had a pretty face, but ultimately she was there because she deserved to be.”
Two Van Dykes
The team is practicing at Penn Park. Van Dyke splits up the team into two sides for a scrimmage: gray and yellow.
The gray contingent holds the established starters. The yellow are fighting for their place.
Yellow advances, but the attack falls flat and gray picks up the ball in their defensive third.
“Who starts in the games?”
Van Dyke yells at the yellow team to pressure the ball, her voice clearly hoarse from a practice’s worth of instruction. “The gray team? You should want to score on them. This is the fun part.”
Everywhere she goes, Van Dyke finds a way to inspire.
“Something I learned was that they like the true, fiery Nicole, and I have no problem obviously giving that,” Van Dyke said.
Werner was not the only person to leave California and follow her to Penn. Current assistant coach Melissa Phillips played for Van Dyke at Cal State Stanislaus, served as her assistant at Cal State Bakersfield and took over as head coach when Van Dyke left for Stanford.
“It was easy,” Phillips said of the choice to upend everything and move to Philadelphia. “I believe in what she wants to build here, and I knew she wasn’t going to leave Stanford for anywhere she didn’t feel had similar potential for success.”
Over her 16 years as a collegiate coach, Van Dyke has come a long way from the coach who would be overwhelmingly hyped up or nervous the day before games, the person who would take match results as if they were determinate of her character.
Nowadays, she places less focus on the end result so long as the effort is there. She has been able to channel that competitiveness into inspiration for her players.
Yet, there is still some semblance of two different Nicoles. There’s the one who will cancel training before a game to throw a pretend dinner party for stress relief. There’s the one who wishes more of her players shared the unrelenting drive that she exhibited as a player.
Both are working toward an Ivy League title, but it remains to be seen what the right balance between the two is. For now, it’s a process. It’s about the actions that the team has to take to get there, not the outcome.
One can only imagine that it’s simply a matter of time before that title is in her hands. In what is still a young career, Van Dyke has all the time and will to make a lasting mark on the soccer landscape, whether it’s for Penn, for women or just for herself.
“The commitment and the drive, the passion that I have to compete and to win our first Ivy League championship,” Van Dyke says.
“You can’t put that on a scale.”
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