Junior attacker Kacie Johnson is on pace to shatter personal and Columbia records this season. After 37 goals and 59 points last season, the reigning Ivy Player of the Week already has 39 goals and 68 points this year, putting her on pace for 49 goals and 36 assists totaling 85 points, all of which would be Lions records.
Yet the most successful lacrosse player on the team is not on the field, but a woman standing on the sidelines. First-year assistant coach Katie Chrest graduated from Duke in 2006 as the program’s record holder in both career and single-season goals and points. In 2005, she won the Tewaaraton Award—given to the best female lacrosse player in the country—after scoring 70 goals and 96 points as the Blue Devils marched to a national title. She was a finalist for the award again in her senior year, topping 60 goals once again as Duke went back to the Final Four.
“She does stick tricks in practice that I could never do, ever,” Johnson said. “And she just really helps out the attack, and the defense, all over the field, and everyone looks up to her. Great person, great coach.”
Chrest noticed that Duke’s team culture had changed leading up to her historic year in 2005. She felt that the team’s locker room became more tightly knit, and that is a culture she hopes to bring to Columbia.
“I think it was such a valuable experience at Duke to have seen one way of doing things, and then having that culture change, and having it be different,” Chrest said. “Being part of the change has really helped me understand how to bring about positive changes in team culture on teams.”
After graduating, the three-time All-American continued playing on an international level. She trained with the national team for a few years and, in 2009, won the World Cup with Team USA. She then entered coaching, and continues to draw from those experiences.
“Just even to have exposure to different coaches than I had at Duke, that was really helpful for me in building a more complete coaching skill set,” Chrest said.
She was a volunteer assistant coach at Maryland, one of the top lacrosse programs in the country. She then took a job as an assistant at Loyola, and in her first year the Greyhounds won the Big East title. After getting engaged, she took a job with the Lions to be closer to her fiance.
“I just really loved my experience as a student athlete at Duke, and wanted to really help to create that same experience for other college players,” Chrest said. “I think I realized how much I learned, not just about the game, but about life through that experience.”
Although an attacker during her college career, Chrest has worked with both the offense and the defense in her time in New York. “I’ve spent some time with the attackers, really working on offensive strategy and just some of the basics on that end of a motion offense, and defensively, just really working on playing together, really trying to build a unit back there,” she said.
Chrest’s influence goes beyond tactics. For a team that has struggled to put up wins each of the last three years—only one Ivy win in 20 games, and 11 in 36 overall—her positivity is a welcome respite from the standings.
“The most effective coaches for me were realistic, so they were hard on me when they needed to be but they were also very positive,” Chrest said. “I think as a coach I really try to take a step aside and really see, ‘OK, what does this player really need’ independent of what I feel about the situation.”
According to Johnson, Chrest has been successful in this effort. “She’s always so positive, and helps everyone in positive ways,” she said. “Everyone feeds off her energy.”
“I just really had such a fun time playing, and that is something that I feel like is so important, especially at the college level when you’re up at seven in the morning on a Monday,” Chrest said.
Her brief coaching career has not come without its difficulties, especially since Chrest only joined in the middle of the academic year. She says it has been a challenge to teach all that she wanted to teach in such a short time.
Head coach Liz Kittleman is only in her second year with Columbia herself, and inheriting a different coach’s systems and players makes it difficult to quickly change a program’s fortunes.
“We’re building the foundation right now,” Chrest said. “And that takes a lot more emotional energy, I think, than just refining kids and just helping them stay good.”
Although the team may not currently have a standout player to fill Johnson’s shoes, Chrest looks forward to helping develop new young talent.
“Another thing that we’ve had to keep in mind is that in three years we’re going to have a very different experience, a very different team, and we are excited about that,” Chrest said. “We’re excited to build into that freshman class a lot of leadership. These guys will have a lot of experience when they’re juniors and seniors.”
Chrest also realizes that her influence can extend off the out-of-bounds lines, hoping her players will use her lessons to help them even after they graduate.
“That’s something that I’m very passionate about: taking a student athlete’s experience on the field beyond what they do as a player,” Chrest said.