by Ryan Morton (J08)
When Jennifer Averill first heard about a coaching opportunity at Wake Forest University, she asked which state the school was in.
After 15 years with the Demon Deacons she has put Wake Forest field hockey on the map. Averill (SESP87), an award-winning field hockey player at Northwestern in the mid-1980s, has led Wake Forest to seven consecutive NCAA tournaments, including three consecutive national championships from 2002 to 2005.
She went to Wake Forest, a private liberal arts university in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1992. The small campus environment, combined with high academic standards, reminded Averill of Northwestern and the reasons she chose to become a Wildcat in the 1980s.
“Nancy Stevens [Northwestern’s head coach from 1981 to 1989] had a great ability to identify passionate individuals,” Averill said. “That’s the foundation of my philosophy, that whatever you’re doing in your life, make sure your heart is driving you. Northwestern demanded that of us, and I demand it of my players.”
Averill’s main focus when recruiting is not on the national championships or the challenging competition. Her big pitch is about joining a family that will care for the student-athlete during and after college, a lesson she learned quickly at Northwestern.
Following her freshman season, Averill’s older brother, Matthew, was killed in a car accident. While grieving, she seriously considered leaving the University to stay closer to her family in San Jose, Calif. She changed her mind when several teammates came together to support her. One teammate even bought her a plane ticket and gave her all the money she would need to fly home.
With that experience in mind, Averill is spearheading a support effort for one of her own in the Wake Forest family. She is collecting donations to support Maria Whitehead, a member of the 2002 championship team, who is battling melanoma.
As a player, Whitehead wore No. 5, an honor Averill reserves for players who are passionate and typically smaller in size but who have huge competitive drives. Averill wore No. 5 at Northwestern.
Averill, who grew up in Geneva, Ill., before moving to San Jose, did not play field hockey until her freshman year of high school in California. In a sport that combines the skills and fundamentals of soccer and ice hockey, Averill says the most useful training she received was playing on the ice with her three older brothers.
“They’d always throw me in the goal and start pummeling me,” Averill says. “I got tough pretty quick.”
While at Northwestern the four-time All-American used that toughness to help elevate Wildcat field hockey from a Division III program to the No. 1 team in the nation, leading Northwestern to the national semifinals in 1985 and 1987.
“Jen was one of those players that comes along once in a decade in a collegiate coach’s career,” Stevens says. “She had that rare ability to make everyone around her better.”
Averill set the all-time career assists record of 70. In addition to receiving the Honda Award in 1986, honoring the nation’s best collegiate field hockey player, Averill was named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 1987 and Northwestern’s Female Athlete of the Decade.
She also has amassed a collection of honors as Wake Forest’s coach — four-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year, as well as Division I National Coach of the Year in 2003 — and accolades from her coaching colleagues.
Averill says Skip Prosser, the successful Wake Forest men’s basketball head coach, is notorious for telling the media “we’re just trying to make a basketball team that the field hockey team will be proud of.” That’s high praise on Tobacco Road.