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'A Great Ambassador For Women's Lacrosse' - Fletcher Is Sportsman Of The Year



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Back in 1997, Newtown's youth lacrosse program had one brand-new girls' team consisting of players ranging from grades 3 through 8.The Newtown Bee's Harmon Award for Sportsman of the Year.Lacrosse HotbedCoaching ChangesInteraction With PlayersCan't Do It Alone

"To think that that vast disparity of ages would work is beyond comprehension now," said Maura Fletcher, who coached that team, has continued to direct youth and/or high school squads for two decades and, because of her efforts throughout the years, has received

Fletcher actually started the town's youth girls' program, beginning with that single lineup of players who, today, would be broken into a handful of age groups.

Since Fletcher got the ball rolling, youth girls' lacrosse has made such significant strides that the youngest teams on up through the high school squad have made their presence felt to the tune of championship success in their respective leagues.

Fletcher, in fact, guided Newtown High's varsity squad to South-West Conference championships all ten years she was at the helm before stepping down from her high school coaching duties after the 2014 campaign.

As proud as Fletcher is of all of the accomplishments of her teams on the field, she is even more thrilled to have had an impact on the lives of young athletes, she said.

In her free time, Fletcher, 51, stays active, playing paddle tennis - including outside on chilly February days - and tennis; she also skis, hikes, and travels. But lacrosse has long been a very significant part of her life.

Having grown up on Long Island, a hotbed for lacrosse, where she and her siblings learned to play the game, Fletcher came to Newtown with her husband, Dave, in 1996, and she recognized a hole in the lacrosse community and started the team to give girls a chance to learn and play the game.

Fletcher recalls being pregnant with her youngest of four, Charlie - now a senior who will play lacrosse at Newtown High this spring - and toting her other three children up what felt like a big hill behind the high school for the first girls' practices in town.

"It was probably a little bump but I thought it was Everest at the time with all that I was juggling," she said. "None of my kids were old enough to play yet. I just saw the need for a girls program."

"Back then it was just teaching how to cradle and catch and throw," said Fletcher, explaining how it was possible for a so many different age groups to play together two decades ago.

These days, thanks to the efforts of Fletcher and others who have helped mold starter players, most children in grades three and up know how to throw and catch. That lone third-grader on the first team, Karli Beitel, had older brothers who had lacrosse skills, making it possible for her to participate, and she went on to play club lacrosse at Dartmouth, Fletcher notes.

All four of Fletcher's children went on to play the game. Madeline graduated NHS in 2014 and attends the University of Delaware. Will graduated NHS in 2012 and attends Virginia Tech. Annie, a Newtown High alum, graduated Vanderbilt University in 2014 and works in Washington, DC.

"It's so fulfilling - so fun. Lacrosse was a huge part of my life and my family's life," Fletcher said of the game.

Her brother, Kevin O'Shea, was an All-American at the University of Virginia, and is in the school's lacrosse hall of fame. Her sisters, Kathy and Chrissy, also played lacrosse.

Fletcher, an attack player, went on to play at Villanova University. She had to get on planes and visit schools to try out whereas coaches now come to watch players before being recruited today.

"It was different back then," she said.

After her playing days, Fletcher has been involved in coaching in some capacity, including during her days in New York through a move to Ohio.

There have been very few changes to the game throughout the years, but two of the notable adjustments are the implementation of eye guards and hard boundaries. It used to be that the play continued and girls chased the ball long after it went outside the field of play.

"The speed of the game - the ball just moves so quickly," Fletcher said is her favorite part of lacrosse. "The girls' game is so much finesse because they don't wear a lot of equipment. It's such a beautiful game."

Fletcher coached youth lacrosse exclusively for about a decade until Annie moved on to high school; she then coached a couple of years of both youth and high school lacrosse before dropping her youth coaching duties to focus on the high school game.

Fletcher coached about ten individuals from second grade all the way through their high school careers.

She also ran a summer camp, which served as a fundraiser for the NHS program, for ten years. All of her youth lacrosse coaching is volunteer based. She also started the winter league at NYA Sports & Fitness about a half-dozen years ago.

Fletcher volunteered with the Newtown Youth Basketball Association and effectively recruited athletes to play lacrosse this way, including Cassie Ekstrom, who had played baseball with the boys, and whom Fletcher converted into a standout lacrosse player who now plays at the University of Connecticut.

After a decade of success at Newtown High, Fletcher stepped down to allow more time to watch her son play the game, but it wasn't so easy to make the change.

"I didn't realize how hard it would be to give up the high school team," she said.

The end of the run was bittersweet as not only was she winding down her high school coaching career, but also lost player Julia Sughrue to injury.

"I don't miss the pressure," Fletcher said of the responsibility of coaching a varsity team. "But I really do miss the interaction with the girls."

Fletcher got back to her Newtown lacrosse roots as she volunteer coached the seventh/eighth grade team this past summer; and plans to do it again this summer.

"I love being hands-on with it," she said. "It's been so fun. I forgot how innocent those kids are before they get to high school."

Fletcher not only volunteer coaches, but also started officiating once she resigned from her high school role.

"The hardest part about coaching girls is to build a cohesive unit," she said. "The X's and the O's was the easy part."

Fletcher recalls challenging one of her youth teams to reach the championship and agreed to put her hair in "warrior buns" if they did so. Sure enough, the team made good on its end of the bargain.

"I thought they would forget but they didn't," said Fletcher, who had fun with the youth players, walking around with a new - but temporary - hairdo for a day.

The coach used to ask her players a question at the beginning of the week, then have the players think about their answers before giving them at the end of the week. One of the questions, Fletcher recalls, was "What brings you joy?"

Upon hearing answers such as "hanging out with friends" or "vacation," Fletcher asked the athletes to dig deeper and think about what brought a smile to their faces. Answers such as "putting on a new pair of socks," "the smell of fresh cut grass," or the "smell of cinnamon in the kitchen because it reminds them of grandma," were the responses that stuck with Fletcher.

In January, Fletcher received a text from a former player thanking her for being such a positive influence on her. She also has received invitations to baby showers and weddings from former players, and it brings a smile to her face to know that her former players care enough to keep her in the loop.

Former players Stephanie Paproski and Betsy Vendel are coaching now - Paproski as the field hockey leader at NHS, and Vendel as an assistant lacrosse coach at Southern Connecticut State University. Fletcher is proud to know athletes she taught are now helping develop players.

Fletcher, who was selected as the Connecticut High School Girls' Lacrosse Association's Coach of the Year in 2014, credits her former assistant coaches at NHS - including Mark Feltch - for playing a prominent roles in her coaching success.

"I knew the X's and O's and he taught me how to teach it," she said.

"I always appreciated how Maura allowed players who came up with a bit, or a funny line, to let loose and make practice fun. We had tough practices, we took our preparation seriously, but we also laughed our heads off," said Feltch, in his fifth season as women's assistant coach at Vassar College.

Feltch notes that Fletcher developed players to move on to collegiate lacrosse, including more than a dozen Division I players.

"She has produced four high school All-Americans, college captains, club captains, and current coaches from the youth level to college sidelines," said Feltch, adding that her high school squads not only won championships but also earned sportsmanship awards.

After Feltch moved on to coach college lacrosse, Fletcher recruited youth lacrosse parent Jim Kenning, whom she picked out in large part because of the way he supported and encouraged the entire team, not focusing on his daughter, Erin, whom he'd eventually help coach throughout high school.

"She is one of the most dedicated coaches I have ever been around - in any sport. She was the face of Newtown lacrosse at all levels, SWC lacrosse, and a great ambassador for women's lacrosse throughout the state of Connecticut," Kenning said. "Her total passion for teaching the sport is unrivaled and she expects and gets the best from all her players. Maura is also a great advocate for her players, whether it's finding the best club team or reaching out to a college coach. Her reputation extends far beyond Newtown High school and many players and coaches are better for it."

Fletcher also thanks NHS Athletic Director Gregg Simon for his support and enthusiasm. which helped make her career so successful. "He connects with the kids so well because he's a dad and he gets it," Fletcher said.

And thanks in part to Fletcher starting that first team back in 1997, and sticking with teaching the game for two decades, girls in town get it too.

Maura Fletcher, far right, stands with the 2012 Newtown High team after winning its eighth straight SWC title. Fletcher won ten in a row during her tenure as coach. (Bee Photo, Hutchison)
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