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The Climb: ‘Do Things That Satisfy Your Soul’: Sara Ecker Leads Lebanon Girls Lacrosse for 23 Seasons

  • At halftime during the Lebanon lacrosse team's last home game, coach Sara Ecker talks with her players while her son Ty listens on May 23, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Coach Sara Ecker warms goalie Elizabeth Jones up before the start of their game in Pelham, N.H., on May 22, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • On their last home game of the season and senior day coach Sara Ecker hugs senior Lily Hier on May, 26 2017 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sara Ecker works with her mother, Joan Ecker, at Fat Hat Clothing Company in Quechee, Vt., on June 8, 2017. At left is Joan's dog Charley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • During a break in team practices on May 25, 2017, Lebanon boys lacrosse coach Rob Fett congratulates Sara Ecker, the girls lacrosse coach, on achieving her 200th win the day before in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2017

Lebanon — There are high school athletic coaches who would not wear a clown’s red foam nose throughout practice, particularly during their 23rd year as head of a program known for consistent success.

Sara Ecker is not those coaches, however, because she performs her job for her players, and making them giggle during a tough stretch of the 2017 Lebanon High girls lacrosse season was the most important thing on her mind.

The young Raiders started 0-5, suffering routs during the last four games of that stretch. Their mood, while far from funereal, was certainly somber, and Ecker wondered if her troops were having the fun necessary to breed resilience.

So out came the red nose for a May 6 workout and in an insulated cooler bag at the next game were popsicles, enough for both Lebanon and visiting Coe-Brown. The Raiders notched their first victory, won four of their last six contests and finished 5-9.

The uptick helped boost Ecker’s career record to 200-148-1, but the longest-tenured high school girls lacrosse coach in New Hampshire worried more often that her players were under emotional duress.

“Each and every one arrives at the field with different stuff on their plate,” said Ecker, who, in addition to working at her family’s Fat Hat clothing company in Quechee, is pursuing her second master’s degree and hopes to become a mental health counselor for adolescents. “You don’t know where someone’s pain or anger is coming from.”

During the spring, Ecker, 45, usually comes to practice from her job handling Fat Hat’s wholesale accounts in what was once a U.S. Route 4 farm house. She can go from a phone call with New York City fabric distributor to arranging for deliveries and pickups of her two elementary school-aged children to devising a lacrosse practice plan. All within 15 minutes.

Throw in her marriage to Ledyard Bank vice president Bob Christensen, a part-time gig helping a friend get her Bradford, Vt., medical clinic off the ground and serving as an assistant coach for the Hartford High girls soccer team, and you have one busy woman. Ecker and her family live in Thetford.

“Somebody once said to me that you should do things that satisfy your soul,” Ecker said while enduring a nauseating bus ride over a curvy, hilly road to a game against InterLakes-Moultonborough. “That’s what lacrosse does for me. It’s a complement to the rest of it. The more different areas you can pull from, the broader your perspective is.”

Ecker was a standout three-sport athlete at Hanover High, from which she graduated in 1989. She played lacrosse at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University for a demanding coach she only later appreciated and has twice traveled to Africa for volunteer work. She previously served as a guardian ad litem in Vermont and New Hampshire, acting as an advocate for children in difficult domestic situations and giving recommendations to the court system on how best to handle them.

Ecker’s players generally don’t know much about her background. They just know they love playing for someone supportive yet demanding, empathetic yet driven.

“You can talk to her about anything, and she will go above and beyond to make sure you’re OK,” said junior defender Lexie Roberts. “We are all her kids, basically.

“She calls mental-health timeouts sometimes, not to talk about passing or catching or the offense but because we can’t calm down enough to see what needs to be done.”

Ecker somehow manages to keep her fierce competitiveness from leaching into her words, tone or actions toward her players. A defensive breakdown at a crucial moment might prompt a brief reaction in her expression or body language, but then it’s back to clapping and shouting encouragement. “Change the conversation” was her mantra this spring, urging her teenagers to remain upbeat and worry about the next play, not the last one.

“It really makes a difference because when we get killed, we get down on ourselves,” said senior defender Baleigh Clark, who successfully battled her own specific tendency in that direction. “She makes a lot of girls on this team feel good about themselves.”

Lebanon athletic director Mike Stone, previously a successful football coach at Hartford High and Norwich University, watched most home games this spring. He built a career as a similar bench boss, supremely organized and firm, but still beloved by the vast majority of his players.

“You can tell the kids respect her, and when she talks, they listen,” Stone said. “I like the way she carries herself, and the team has shown great improvement. The kids are lucky to have her.”

John McDermott, father of Raiders sophomore Zoe Soule, feels the same way.

His other daughter, Taylor, recently graduated from Kimball Union Academy and will play basketball at Boston College. McDermott has seen a lot of coaches during his children’s playing days and while Taylor was being recruited and said their impact is substantial.

“Coaches are every bit as much teachers as anyone who stands in a classroom,” McDermott said. “Sara has a way of using language that women understand, and as a strong, female coach, she creates a real sense of belonging for these girls.

“That bond is the main motivation for Zoe to be here. This is a woman she responds to as a mentor.”

How much longer will Ecker do it, however? She already frets at how the job eats into family time, and that will only increase as her kids grow and become more involved in their own sports and activities. Lebanon has reloaded, however, and it’s not hard to see it earning another crack at a state title in two years, when it could potentially have a 10-member senior class.

Last year, Ecker discussed the quandary with Ty, her 10-year-old son and himself a lacrosse fanatic. She said she thinks about stepping down so she can spend more time with him and his sister, Kait, who turned 8 earlier this month.

“He said, ‘Mommy, you can’t. You love it,’ ” Ecker recalled with a small smile. “And he’s right. I do.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.