New-ish Coaches on the Block, Part 1

Part One

One is well into his collegiate coaching career, the other is just starting out, but both have recently entered the Hope College head coaching ranks. No matter their age difference, head women’s lacrosse coach Keagan Pontious and head swimming and diving coach Jake Taber 04 have a passion for leading and mentoring student-athletes that is palpable. They join 14 other Hope head coaches — with 199 years of college coaching experience between them — who share the same zeal to transform lives through the Hope athletic experience.

Keagan Pontious watches lacrosse players run a play.

Keagan Pontious and her Seton Hill University lacrosse teammates were preparing for the first NCAA tournament game in Griffins program history when she received an incoming call from a random number in Holland, Michigan. It was Hope College Athletic Director Tim Schoonveld ’96 asking if she might be interested in Hope’s women’s lacrosse head coaching position.

With her focus on the upcoming game, Pontious politely told Schoonveld that she had other things on her mind just then. Still, she expressed interest and told Schoonveld he would be hearing from her later.

“I think I surprised her, but it also got her thinking,” Schoonveld said.

That was May 2019. The next month brought glowing headlines. Pontious earned an All-American spot for her midfield play and landed the job as head women’s lacrosse coach at Hope. Schoonveld chose a 23-year-old to fill a position previously occupied by Kim Vincent, who led the Flying Dutch to a school-record 11 wins in the 2019 season. Vincent was at the helm for five years before her retirement created the vacancy.

“I received an email from a parent of an athlete who played club for Keagan [at Pure Advantage Lacrosse] and who had been recruited to play for Hope,” Schoonveld said. “Her dad was so impressed that he emailed me to recommend Keagan.”

Roughly a week later, some of Hope’s women’s lacrosse players brought her name up in conversation with Schoonveld again.

“I felt like we needed to at least talk to her,” Schoonveld said. “Now I’m thankful for those people who recommended her.”

Pontious said her first in-person meeting with Schoonveld was “awesome” and that she quickly found stability. She feels department wide support and delivers high praise for the successful people around her.

Have a conversation about Pontious with her former coaches, and you receive remarkable reviews about her work ethic. Talk with her parents, and you get stories about her competitive streak and drive to get better and outwork the competition. All told, you understand why — and how — Pontious got her first collegiate coaching job fresh out of college.

 “When she was three years old, she rode a two-wheel bike because her sister was five years old and had just learned how to ride a two-wheeler. She wanted to keep up,” said Jane Pontious, Keagan’s mother.  “She told us to take her training wheels off, and off she went. She’s been that way ever since.”

Ralph Shefferly introduced Pontious to lacrosse in eighth grade at Duncan Lake Middle School in her hometown of Caledonia, Michigan. Her physical education teacher at the time, Shefferly put a lacrosse stick in her hands — “the worst possible stick” as Pontious describes it — and in no time she could catch and throw with both hands.

“Keagan was a natural from the very first time we played catch together,” said Shefferly. “I told her when she first started playing [lacrosse] that she would be an All-State player. Sure enough, she was All-State four years and broke many state records for scoring.”

Keagan Pontious gives the thumbs up to her team.

Pontious has high expectations for her 2020 Hope squad — including an MIAA championship and unwavering team togetherness — and she has already instilled the heart-and-hustle philosophy adopted from her college coach at Seton Hill, Courtney Grove.

Grove discovered Pontious at a Notre Dame lacrosse camp. When Grove learned she was uncommitted, a four-word invitation followed: “Come see Seton Hill.” Pontious visited and fell in love with the people there.

That one visit to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, did it. Pontious knew she could carve out a prominent role from the onset if she kept her tireless work ethic intact. Not long after the Seton Hill commitment, though, the University of Michigan wanted her to visit, too. There are what-if-I-went-to-Michigan moments for her, but she knows Seton Hill was the right choice: “It was absolutely the best experience of my life.”

Despite two different season-ending injuries. The first was a broken foot her sophomore year that caused a medical redshirt. She was expecting a breakthrough year after a strong freshman showing, but surgery put her in a boot the entire season. The second injury was a torn ACL as a junior. She took a fifth academic year to complete her four years of athletic eligibility.

Pontious actually reflects fondly on the injuries. The extra year gave her the time needed to confirm she desired coaching as a long-term career. The fifth year also produced a resurgent Pontious, as she earned All-American status and helped lead the Griffins to their first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Grove noticed through the injuries that Pontious had an innate ability to lead and was always looking to better herself and her teammates. 

“Even with a broken foot, she was out sitting in a chair warming up the goalies before practices,” Grove said. “This was an example of her leadership. It showed her teammates that she would do anything to help the team and be part of the team.” It also showed Grove that Pontious would someday make a great college coach.

As head coach of the Flying Dutch, Pontious understands that her powerful platform holds abundant influence and responsibilities, regardless of her age.

Grove was delighted, then, when Pontious called Schoonveld soon after her final collegiate game to talk in detail about the Hope job. No breaking news here: Pontious now has an entire Flying Dutch team to operate. Her bachelor’s degree in business administration and MBA with a specialty in management closely apply to her coaching.

Her organizational approach includes whiteboard calendars mounted on her office wall to keep things in order, plus sticky notes galore surrounding her computer. She inherited the heavy use of the little square notes from her mother, who would post them all over the house — to-do lists, inspirational quotes, reminders. Pontious now writes plays on them. 

 “I’m very passionate about this game, and I know that the team realizes that about me,” Pontious said. “I tell them all the time that I should never have to question your heart for this game. If your heart isn’t in it, then you might need to think about whether or not you should be here.”

“She understands her role is to transform lives through lacrosse, and she is doing a fantastic job,” said Schoonveld.

Being a collegiate athlete has life-changing potential; Pontious knows this firsthand. Teammates become lifelong friends. Coaches mold their student-athletes into better people. Wins and losses reflect the ebbs and flows of human existence.

“Hope is a place that changes lives,” Pontious said. “That’s what Seton Hill was for me. Lacrosse for sure changed my life, and I want to allow the women here to be changed through lacrosse and have their college experience be super great because of lacrosse and everything else that Hope College offers.”

As head coach of the Flying Dutch, Pontious understands that her powerful platform holds abundant influence and responsibilities, regardless of her age. She exudes a confidence that makes one feel as if she already ditched the training wheels and pressed onward to greater coaching heights. That should not be surprising, but an incoming call from Holland, Michigan? Well, that was unforeseen. 

Photographs by Lynne Powe ’86

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